The 1841 census wasn’t the first taken in the United Kingdom, but it was the earliest to record the names of every individual and the earliest to survive in a form that is of widespread use to genealogists. Earlier censuses (1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831), either survive as statistics only, or for a few parishes there are drafts used to calculate the numbers involved, such as lists of households, often in the miscellaneous documents collectively termed parish chest records.
Compared with later censuses, that of 1841 had some big limitations:
- Ages of those over fifteen were supposed to have been rounded down to the nearest multiple of five years, although this wasn’t always applied. For example, if someone was recorded as 30, and assuming that they knew their age accurately, this implied that they could be nearly 35, and so nearly five years older than their age as recorded would suggest.
- Relationships within households weren’t documented, and so what looks like a father, mother and children, might not actually be that, for example, the children might be a visitor, niece, or nephew.
- Only one given (no middle names) were supposed to have been recorded.
- Exact places of birth weren’t written, only if the person was born in the same county that they were then living was stated, or if they were born in England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland or foreign parts.
Whereas the first few points can often be recreated from other records, if the individual died before the next census was taken in 1851, the place of birth is the hardest to recreate.
I look through a lot of censuses when undertaking research, and I have come across one institution that did record places of birth. This was the Upper Trinity Ground, Deptford, which were almshouses for merchant mariners. The enumerators had also tried to use exact ages, rather than rounding down, and written the places of birth across the final two columns, which usually just had a “yes” or “no” in them, so for around 100 individuals, this detailed information survives. As these were almshouses, many of the inhabitants were quite elderly, one of them, Naomi Thompson, was 87, so born about 1754, and stated to have been a native of Great Yarmouth. What is also lovely about these records is that they can often be tied in with the Trinity House Calendars, made by the Society of Genealogist, which give further details [https://search.findmypast.co.uk/search-world-records/british-mariners-trinity-house-calendars-1787-1854].
By using these two sources, I managed to trace a client’s ancestor back to Whitby in Yorkshire—many people have the same person in their online trees, but have assumed wrongly that he was from London and consequently have completely the wrong lineage before him.