Census returns are often referred to primarily as a source for family history, but they can of great use when it comes to researching social history or tracing the occupants of a house or neighbourhood. They will also provide interesting background information about the families who lived in a particular location at the time of the various censuses in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including occupations and where they were born.
The first national census was taken in 1801 and every ten years thereafter, although the first census to feature named householders does not date until 1841. The early censuses are useful to the researcher looking at the growth or decline of a population in a particular location as strictly numerical data. These figures have been reproduced in a table of county population statistics in The Victoria County History of Staffordshire, Volume I.
Occasionally, local parishes would compile more detailed information about the population to assist them in submitting the numerical totals. Such information survives for the parishes of Colwich, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and Wednesbury at Staffordshire Record Office, and Sedgley at Dudley Archives. Population information re Lichfield St Michael formerly held at Lichfield Record Office (closed dec 2017) will be made available at Staffordshire Record Office in May 2018.
Censuses from 1841 onwards
The census returns from 1841 onwards feature more detailed information about local populations and this information increases with each census. On each return, the head of the household (whether male or female) is listed, followed by children, relatives, servants, lodgers and anybody else who was living or staying in that house on the night of the particular census. The marital status and relationship to the head of the household is recorded, along with occupation, age, gender and place of birth.
Using the Census returns for research
This material can be especially useful for studying the lifestyles of people in a particular house or neighbourhood, whether they have a number of servants or are sharing a boarding house (and possibly a room) with several other families. Institutions such as prisons and asylums are also recorded, providing a snapshot of their occupants on census night. With the exception of 1851, houses were recorded as being inhabited, empty or in the process of being built. Additionally, the 1891 census gives the number of rooms in each house. The 1911 census enumeration schedules (rather than the individual returns) list all the buildings in a street including shops and industrial premises. Eight detailed censuses are now available for public research, with the 1911 census being the most recently released.
Arrangement of census returns
Census returns are arranged geographically by civil parish. Between 1841 and 1891, an increasing amount of geographical data is recorded, including details of new local government districts such as urban sanitary districts. This can be particularly helpful if tracing the administrative development of an area or community.
Problems in identifying individual properties
Addresses are not always recorded in great detail and one of the main problems can be in identifying the correct property. Street numbering in towns was not formalised in the 19th century, and changes in the numbering of a street occur for a number of reasons. The century saw rapid urban growth, with a proliferation of yards, courts and subdivided dwellings. This development caused problems with addresses, resulting in new streets with unsystematic numbering systems. Developments at the ends of existing streets were often numbered separately, only to be renumbered at a later date as part of the road on which they stood. Demolition of older buildings could also result in the loss of house numbers.
In small towns and rural villages, there may have been no system of numbering at all. The names of prominent houses and farms may be recorded, as will the names of public houses, but smaller dwellings may not be so readily identifiable. The first edition ‘County Series’ Ordnance Survey maps dating from the 1880s may help to identify particular properties, and can also be useful in tracing the enumerator’s route around a defined area.
Census returns online
Census returns 1841-1901 and census schedule books 1911 are available to consult online at Ancestry.com, which can be accessed free of charge through computer terminals at Staffordshire Record Office, Stoke on Trent City Archives and Burton-upon-Trent Family History Centre at Burton Library. A complete set of Staffordshire census entries 1841-1901 in microfiche format is held at Staffordshire Record Office, whilst Stoke on Trent City Archives hold microfiche copies for a more limited area.
For information about earlier lists of population and religious censuses, please follow the links on the left.