The General Register Office (GRO) in England and Wales was created in 1836 to record births and deaths. Because of the nationwide structure of registration districts and sub-districts that the GRO created, it was decided that the agency would be given responsibility to conduct the fifth decennial census in 1841. It also coordinated the census for Scotland in 1841 and 1851. The original census act required that enumerators should record in writing the name, age, sex, and occupation of every person living in the home. The schedules also recorded whether the individual was born in the county in which he/she was residing in 1841, or if they were born in Scotland, Ireland, or “Foreign parts.”
John Rickman was the clerk to the House of Commons, and started implementing procedures for taking the census. Registration sub-districts were subdivided into enumeration districts for the purposes of taking the census. When Rickman died in August 1840, he was replaced by Thomas Lister, the first registrar general.
Lister was eager to introduce some changes. Just two months before the census was due to be taken in June, he managed to push a bill through Parliament to implement three major changes:
- The census date was changed from Wednesday, June 30, to Sunday, June 6.
- Originally, everyone was to have their exact age reported. With the new bill, individuals over the age of 15 would no longer have their age expressed exactly. Every person age 15 to 19 would have their age represented as 15. People aged 20 to 24 would be listed as age 20, and so on in five-year increments. Each person would be listed according the five year increment below their actual age (or their actual age if it was a multiple of 5).
- Census schedules would now be filled out by householders, not the enumerators. The householder schedules would be collected by the enumerator and the information copied into books known as the enumerator schedules, which would become the official copy. This process remained in place until the 1901 census.
While the first change does not impact genealogists very much, the second and third changes have a major impact. When using the censuses, it is important to understand that ages of adults are represented as a five-year date range.
Also, the process for taking the census leaves data open to potential problem. The enumerator may have had difficulty reading the householder’s handwriting, or may have omitted information. Pages may have been accidentally lost. Transcription errors may have occurred when copying the information into the enumerator schedules. Unfortunately, the original householder schedules were destroyed, thus they cannot be examined.
U.K. census records can be consulted on many websites, including Ancestry.com and Ancestry.co.uk, FindMyPast.co.uk, ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk, FamilySearch.org, and FreeCen.org.uk. For more information about the 1841 U.K. census (or other censuses), consult Peter Christian and David Annal’s Census: The Expert Guide (Kew, England: The National Archives, 2008).