Updated 10 Oct 2000

WIRKSWORTH Parish Records 1600-1900

Return to Front Page

1851 Census Background

In 1851 and later, the amount of information demanded was stepped up. The opposition remained vociferous, but the majority was resigned to the decennial inquisition. A few middle-class intellectuals used great ingenuity to avoid enumeration, by travelling overnight, or complied with the letter of the law, but not the spirit, by stating their birthplaces as the county or even the country only, and by using initials instead of full names.
AGES. These now had to be given correctly. Some people gave wrong information on principle, but many more through lack of knowledge, and some enumerators still had to make guesses for the bewildered or uncooperative, and used round figures based on the five year steps of 1841. There may be strange discrepancies over the five decades when censuses were taken
BIRTHPLACES. These were also to be given exactly. The same suspicions by the poor that they would be evicted applied. Many people really didn't know where they were born, especially the eldest of a family, since the parents moved when they toddlers and "always lived here" ever since. Richer folk are either very detailed or maddeningly reticent, giving "London" as a birthplace, which is pretty useless for tracing pre-1837 events among hundreds of parishes.
OCCUPATIONS. These were given for everyone. Tradesmen were defined as "master", "journeyman" or "apprentice" and the number of employees of a master stated. Farmers gave an acreage and number of employees, by sex. Even children had their own occupations - many were gainfully employed at tender ages. Those at school or not employed were "scholars" and this occupation is often given for infants of a few days old. Small babies may be unnamed, or sometimes a name is filled in for a tiny infant which is thought better of later. Prevalent occupations locally are abbreviated.
RELATIONSHIPS of all residents to the head of the household were stated for the first time, combined with marital status (single, married, widow/er). This caused great upset to couples living together without benefit of clergy, frightened by threats of legal penalties into revealing all. The parentage of bastards is often made clear. Was the child "son" or "wife's son"? The latter relationship was often shown as "son in law", the older version of stepson, though the phrase had the modern meaning too. A child brought up by grandparents as their own may be revealed as the child of an unmarried daughter, either by a knowing enumerator, or a family too timid to brazen it out. But beware of enumerator's own mistakes - where married couples are living in a parent's house, their children may be described as "son" or "daughter" when it is clear that they should be grandchildren to the head of the house.
There were classifications to cover many other members of the household, including "servants" (then described more exactly under "occupation"), "boarders" (who eat at the family table), "lodgers" (who may have a bed only), "visitors" - but there is very little room to describe a married son or daughter who had dropped in on the family at census night. Nevertheless, some enumerators squeezed both relationships into the tiny space.
MEDICAL INFORMATION.There was a final column in which to make a note of anyone who was "blind, deaf or idiot". The duration of the ailment was sometimes stated and other medical problems might be included, in great detail. Incidentally, a tick in this column running all the way down the page does not mean that everyone in the household was afflicted in this way. It indicates that information has been abstracted by the statistician after being sent in.

Some of these statisticians caused great problems by slapping their pencil ticks across ages or parts of names and occupations, which thus don't show through clearly on film

The 1851 census forms were filled in in ink, so the films are generally more legible, though bad writing is a hazard and some cheap ink has faded with the years, before filming. An occasional problem is that ages, in particular, have been miscopied from the rough original, and an 8 is found where a 6 might be expected, or a 4 for a 7, and vice versa, so do not regard the enumeration book as Holy Writ.

Enumerators were also asked to list persons not living in houses - vagrants, Gipsies, travelling traders, railway navvies, boat people - and there were special forms for vessels in port, to be filled in by the master. The enumerator was asked to state how many normal inhabitants were absent and why, and to account for any noticeable increase or decrease in population. These details, at the end of the official pages of the books, form an interesting sidelight on local conditions.

Institutions, like prisons, workhouses, barracks and large schools, were enumerated in separate schedules attached to the place. Some enumerators for prisons and asylums use initials only for the inmates, which is annoying.
(Extract from "The Censuses 1841-1881" by Eve McLaughlin) (Back to the Menu)