This morning during one of my many daily visits to the website Findmypast I noticed an interesting item on their news section on the homepage about the 1939 Register – that they have announced their project to digitise this record set to make available online in the next two years. This is great news. Guy Etchells, a genealogist known over here for his high-profile campaigns was at the forefront of calls to make this available, it was he who helped push the earlier release of the 1911 census for England and Wales and for freedom of information related requests to search the 1939 Register.
So what is the 1939 Register and why is it so important?
Shortly after the outbreak of WWII, the British Government commissioned this register to compile information about the residents in order to create identity cards and ration books for everyone. It also went on to provide information to the National Health Service when it was formed after the war. The register was taken on Friday 29th September 1939 and each person had to provide the following details: their address, name, sex, date of birth, marital condition, occupation and whether they were a member of the armed forces or reserves.
This information is pretty valuable to those people looking into their more recent history, to locate parents or grandparents in these early stages of the war, especially as there was no census taken in 1941 due to the war and the 1931 census had been destroyed during the Blitz. This information fills a bit of a gap between 1921 and the next census 1951 (although that won’t be released until at least 2052 assuming we keep to the 100 year closure rule.)
What about the other censuses in England and Wales?
Censuses here started in 1801 and were completed every ten years. The first four of these censuses didn’t really provide much useful information to the genealogist as often they contained purely statistical data and many no longer survive. However there are some that did give the names of the head of the household, number of males and females and possibly a specific address but this varies.
A great guide to the surviving pre-1841 censuses can be found here. You may find that some local history groups have transcribed these early censuses so it is worth checking out the area you are interested in and doing a Google search to see if any are online.
The dates the censuses were taken were as follows:
1841 – 6th June
1851 – 30th March
1861 – 7th April
1871 – 2nd April
1881 – 3rd April
1891 – 5th April
1901 – 31st March
1911 – 2nd April
Once we get to 1841 then we find more useful information. Not only do we have names of all members of the household, but we get ages and occupations and whether the person was born in the county they were living in, or outside (including Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts.) What it doesn’t provide are the relationships within the household or marital statuses. So be careful to take this information as a guide – it might be that a family has a niece or a nephew or grandchild or cousin living with them who you might initially take to be a child of the head of the household. Plus ages of people over 15 were often rounded up or down by the nearest five years. In some cases they didn’t do that but I will often just use the ages on there as a rough guide.
The 1851 census then starts to provide us with more information. Now we see the relationships within a household, marital status, place of birth, exact ages and whether they were blind, deaf or dumb. It is worth noting that the column on the far left is for the schedule number – not the house number. I see many people often make the mistake of including this in the address when recording the information for their tree.
Then we come to the 1861 census. This doesn’t really offer much more information than the 1851 census, but it was when they started to include ships of the Royal Navy and merchant shipping at sea and in ports abroad, and from British ships in home ports.
Similarly the 1871 provides the same sort of information as 1861 and 1851. The only difference is that the section around disability on the far right has been slightly expanded to cover whether the person was 1. Deaf and Dumb, 2. Blind, 3. Imbecile or Idiot and 4. Lunatic. Much as we dislike most of these terms today, it was the norm in those days to describe a multitude of conditions.
The 1881 census provides the same information as the 1871 census.
The 1891 census expands slightly on the occupation details to state whether a person was an employer, employed or neither.
The 1901 census then changes these boxes slightly to state whether a person was an employer, worker or on their own account and then whether they worked at home. The disability section wording is changed slightly to read feeble-minded instead of idiot.
The 1911 census is very different – mainly because the enumerators schedules (which are what the previous census images are made up of) no longer survive but we do have the schedules completed by the householder, so for the first time we get to see the details filled out in our ancestors handwriting and their signatures. You can also view the enumerators booklets that accompany the forms to see the neighbouring addresses and head of household names as well as details about the area. (Often when viewing the other censuses online if you go to the start of the pages for that area you can see the description of the enumerators route around the locality.)
The 1911 census also provides us with some invaluable information – the number of years a couple has been married for and the number of live births of children they have had and how many children had died. If you were widowed then you were not obliged to provide this information – but it is a bonus when you do find this. You may also find that couples counted still births so you might be puzzled if you cannot locate all the children numbered (as until 1927 still births were not registered and from that date are recorded in closed registers – but often burial records will give details such as ‘still born child of John Smith.’) It is very handy to help discover any children you might not have been aware of who may have been born and died between censuses.
It is also worth remembering that people could put what they wanted – so if they were trying to cover up the fact that they had illegitimate children they might say they had been married for more years than they were (or even at all!)
There is also more information provided in terms of the area of occupation as to what industry they were employed in. The infirmity column also expands to ask whether the person was Totally Deaf or Deaf and Dumb, Totally Blind, Lunatic, Imbecile or Feeble-Minded and at what age they had become afflicted. As the 1911 census was released online before the 100 year closure rule, this column had been covered over to protect details from anyone who might be alive today. In 2012 this was removed and the images online updated.
It also asks the householder to state how many rooms were in the house, they were allowed to count the kitchen as a room but not a scullery, landing, lobby, closet, bathroom nor warehouse, office or shop.
You may also find the householder has made a mistake on their form, one of my ancestors accidentally wrote down the name of a child who had died two years before the census – it was sad to see that they had called her Milley (her name was Amelia.)
There are several areas where there are bits missing on the censuses which could be a reason why you might be struggling to find a family. The 1861 census suffered the most for missing parts and parts of the 1851 census for areas in and around Manchester were damaged by water in storage, so some entries are unfilmed and may have a transcription in place of an image. For details of any problem areas – this page at Findmypast is very helpful.
For interest’s sake I am also including an example of a 1921 census form. This asks much the same information however it asks if a child has both parents alive, one dead or both dead (I suppose if they are not being listed with their parents.) It does not ask how many years a couple had been married or how many children they had. It asks whether if in education whether it is full or part-time and asks for the address of the place of work. This census will more than likely be released in 2021/2022.
The Scottish and Irish censuses are a little different in terms of content – but I will probably do another post about them in due course!
These censuses are available to search and view for a fee through sites like Findmypast and Ancestry and The Genealogist. Although the 1881 census is usually free as it had been made available by the LDS Church previously via FamilySearch. There are of course plenty of local history societies and groups who have worked hard to transcribe censuses for their local areas and I cannot do this post without mentioning FreeCEN – part of the same group as FreeBMD and FreeREG – working to provide free transcriptions of censuses covering England, Wales and Scotland. (FreeBMD is the transcription of the birth, marriage and death registration indexes of England and Wales and FreeREG covers transcriptions of parish registers across England, Wales and Scotland.)
Hopefully this post will have been of some help as a general guide to the censuses of England and Wales, it is by no means definitive as I’m sure there are probably other details and complexities that I haven’t covered, but it should provide some basic details to help with your research!