How the British census was done – and the mistakes that come with it

There’s a myth out there among many family historians that the census books we see today were completed by an enumerator standing on the doorstep and interviewing a member of the household. But that isn’t how it was done.

The first national British census that detailed individuals was in 1841 and was the result of the Population Act 1840: “An Act for Taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain”. Forms were delivered to each household for them to complete, asking who was in the household on the night of 7 June 1841. An enumerator collected the forms after 7 June, checked them, and then copied the information from them into an enumerator’s book. What we see today is the enumerator’s book and not the form the household completed, as the original forms were not kept. An enumerator was given an area sized so that he (and it nearly always was a he, and often the local schoolmaster) could visit each household in one day to collect the forms – but this wasn’t enough time to fill in all the forms on the household’s behalf.

The same happened in every decade following, except for the night chosen: it became the end of March/early April. The only year for which we can now see the actual form the household submitted is for 1911 England and Wales. 1911 Scotland is still the enumerator’s book.

Mistakes, of course, crept in, both unintentional and intentional, which can make life tricky for today’s family historians. And if you rely on transcriptions of the census instead of viewing the original, there’s another layer of mistakes to take into account.

Mistakes made when completing the census form

Firstly, there were mistakes made by whoever completed the form. Where no-one in the household could read or write, they had to get someone else to complete it for them. This may have been the enumerator himself but it would have been impossible for an enumerator to fill in all the forms he had to collect. Quite probably most local people who could read and write helped the illiterate households. This could be ministers, doctors, schoolmasters and mistresses, lawyers, anyone who worked as a clerk, literate neighbours and, as the 19th century went on and universal education came into being, a child or a neighbour’s child. So for many households the person completing the form wouldn’t have had detailed knowledge of what they were writing about and simply wrote down what they were told – or thought they were being told. Hence the very common misspelling and mishearing of names and places, getting ages wrong, and no doubt missing people off.

Some people may have given wrong information, not always deliberately. The most common inaccuracy seems to be age, as illiterate people may not have been entirely sure of what year they were born and therefore how old they were, hence given ages were often approximate. Prior to 1837 in England and 1855 in Scotland there wasn’t such a thing as a birth certificate. Place of birth is sometimes wrong, especially where there were lots of children and the family moved around, and adults sometimes give where they were brought up rather than born, an understandable error to make if they hadn’t been told otherwise. I have one ancestor who always says he was born in Riccarton but given the movements of his parents at the time that may not be true. I have one census entry for a family where the age of two of the children has been transposed. And most of us will have census entries where the age of someone varies by a year or two depending on which census we’re looking at.

Then there is what I think of as misleading information from the point of view of family historians – it most probably isn’t deliberate misinformation but it isn’t accurate. The most common instances seem to be first names being the one commonly used and not the one given at baptism or registration, illegitimate children being listed with their father’s surname when they’d been baptised or registered with their mother’s surname, and children listed as child of the head of house when they were actually grandchildren. There can also be instances of women using their partner’s surname when they weren’t married. It’s also possible someone in the household was inadvertently missed off, especially where it was a large household.

No doubt there were instances of deliberate misinformation, though it can be difficult to prove if that’s the case, or even find an entry for someone who was telling lies. There would have been people who, for whatever reason, deliberately gave a misleading name, age or occupation, and no doubt there were also people who completely evaded capture in the census, whether intentional or not.

Mistakes made when completing the enumerator’s book

Once the forms had been completed by, or on behalf of, each household, the next stage was the enumerator collecting the completed forms, and no doubt this resulted in some households being missed out. There would have been a limit to how much effort an enumerator put into making sure every household was accounted for, as they had a deadline to meet, and some enumerators may have been rather less assiduous in this task then others.

Then the enumerator had to sit down and copy out each form into the enumerator’s book, and as anyone who’s ever copied out large amounts of information will know, being 100% accurate is impossible. What we don’t know is how much, if any, checking and re-reading an enumerator did. In any case, accuracy would vary by enumerator, some being more careful and precise than others.

Enumerators will also have had forms submitted that were hard to read, containing surnames and occupations they weren’t familiar with, and so wrote a “best guess” into their book. They may also have inadvertently missed a member of a household out.

Mistakes made when making a modern transcription

Anyone who regularly uses Ancestry for a search of the census knows how inaccurate their transcriptions are: hilariously in many cases. It would appear that much of Ancestry’s transcriptions have been done overseas by people who had no context for the information they were transcribing, so they did as they were instructed and simply copied the letters they thought they saw. This results in some quite remarkable “translations”! I have a Strachan family it took me ages to find, as Ancestry has them as Krachen. So if using Ancestry, make a wide search and be prepared for mistakes.

Sources of online census records

To see the actual image of a page in the enumerator’s book:
First you have to search an index but on the following sites you get to see the actual page in the enumerator’s book so you can make your own mind up about what it says:
ScotlandsPeople pay to view site at has images and also contains useful information pages for each census year plus street indexes for some urban locations.
Ancestry subscription site at (or whatever country you are in) has images for England and Wales but only transcriptions for Scotland. You can also browse through an enumerator’s book if you want to see who your ancestor’s neighbours were.
FindMyPast for England and Wales subscription site at has images for England and Wales but only has transcription for Scotland, and it allows you to search by address.

For free to use transcriptions:
FreeCen at has England, Wales and Scotland but not all years for all locations have been completed, so check Database Coverage before you search.
National Archives web site at has links to where you can search the England and Wales census.

For links to various census sites:
CensusFinder at provides a search and link facility for census records for the UK, USA and Canada.

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