Making Sense of the Census
The UK Census is a fabulous resource for Family History research
What could I take from the Census to give me a further insight into her and her ancestors lives?
The UK census is a snap shot of a family on a particular night and shows whole family groupings. The Government started to collate details of the UK poulation in 1801, with a headcount. The census has been taken every 10 years since, excluding 1941 (World Ware II). For family historians the 1841 census is the first useful census as it contains names and addresses (and currently we can access every census from 1841 to 1911).
Start with your grandparents birth certificate as a basis for searching; the names included (child and parents), place of birth, and fathers occupation should help identify the correct family on the first census after the birth. The census can be found on all the popular subscription websites and at The National Archives in Kew, London. For those relating to your area use your local record office or library. The Family History Centres at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and Family History Societies are also a good resource.
Rowland, Railway Clerk
The obvious place to start with locating May Doris Needs is with the 1911 Census, taken 9 years after her birth.
Great excitement greeted the release of the 1911 census, in 2009. This was partly due to the fact that the actual householder pages are published on the internet (not the enumerator copy), meaning you are able to read your ancestors writing! This is also the most detailed census published to date and famously has a set of ‘fertility’ questions, asked by the Government of the day due to concerns over the falling birth rate. Questions such as how long the couple had been married, how many children they had had and how many children had survived give an insight into mortality in the Edwardian period.
Searching on the subscription website thegenealogist6 we find May NEEDS, Daughter, 8 years of age listed at 48 Penrith Road, Thornton Heath, Croydon, a property with 5 rooms. We note that the kitchen is counted as a room, but not the scullery, landing, lobby, closet, bathroom, nor warehouse, office or shop!
Seven males and four females are listed in the property in total (including May NEEDS):
Rowland NEEDS, aged 44 the head of the household. Born in Camberwell occupation; Railway Clerk.
Alice NEEDS, aged 41 the wife, married to Rowland for 22 years. Born in Bermondsey. A total of 10 children have been born alive, with 2 that have subsequently died.
Rowland NEEDS, aged 21, son, single. Born in Rotherhithe, New Road, S E, occupation; Com[mercial?] Clerk.
John NEEDS, aged 19, son, single. Born in Camberwell, occupation; Printing Trade (assistant).
Charles NEEDS,aged 14, son. Born in Thornton Heath, Surrey, occupation; Shop Boy.
Arthur NEEDS, aged 13, son. Born in Thornton Heath, occupation: [at] School,
Walter NEEDS, aged 6, son. Born in Thornton Heath.
Albert NEEDS, aged 2, son. Born in Thornton Heath.
Kathleen NEEDS, aged 1, daughter. Born in Thornton Heath.
Jemima NASH, aged 71, visitor (widow), born in Lambeth.
So we gain a lovely snapshot of the family, on the night of the 2 April 1911.
This information allows us to:
get an insight into the household and occupations; judging the relative wealth of the family (in this case I could start to identify potential railway records for Rowland).
identify further family members and their birthplaces.
corroborate facts on birth, marriage or death (bmd) certificates.
look into the relationship of Jemima Nash to the family; perhaps she is a potential ancestor?
take the 2 deaths indicated in the fertility questions, and by comparing ancestors appearing on previous censuses identify deaths. Looking at the household we note a gap of 7 years between Walter and Arthur NEEDS; could this indicate the missing siblings?
compare to previous censuses and identify other potential deaths (I have to be careful though as the person could have moved, or be visiting relatives; an indication such as widow or widower is safer).
lead us to the 1901 Census
However I must always be careful of inaccuracy and error due to careless transcription, poor handwriting or heavy local accents (the case for earlier censuses).
Remember ages given (certainly for older ancestors) may not be entirely correct, depending upon the honesty of your ancestor, their knowledge of birth dates or their memory! Don’t take the ‘year born’ indication from the subscription sites as accurate (use it as a guide only until you find other documentary proof). Due to when in the year your ancestor was born they may be up to a year out, or much, much more.
Wander up the street
One of the advantages of subscription websites is the ability to look at the census returns for your ancestors neighbours. Thus if we ‘walk’ up Penrith Street (by accessing the image of the Census return and selecting ‘next page’) we gain an insight into the neighbourhood. Completing this for a number of households I noted:
a carpenter and his wife and child
a bank messenger (born in Ireland) and his wife and child
a ladies tailor cutter and his wife and children
a police constable and his wife (born in Cornwall)
a retired engineer, his wife and children (one married and one single)
another police constable, his wife and two nephews
a detective sergeant in the police force, with his wife and children…
…and so on
I’m sure this was a pretty peaceful road with the households of at least 3 police officers within 8 doors! You may find other ancestors living in the same road, however you do get a feel for the environment your ancestors were working in. All the households have between 5 and 6 rooms.
If we use a mapping tool like google earth we can literally, from our own computers, walk down the street to 48 Penrith Road, Thornton Heath and look at the current property, noting it is a terraced house, probably built towards the end of the 19th century.
Just around the corner
Using the information gleaned for Rowland and Alice I can use this to locate the family on the earlier 1901 Census (remember I can’t use my grandmother as she was born in 1902). We find Rowland (spelt Roland) with Alice and his children (Roland, John, Charles and Arthur) and intriguingly a visitor; Clementina CLARK, aged 35 born in Shetland, Scotland. I wonder if Clementina is visiting from the CLARK family next door? The NEEDS are at 52 Cranbrook Road, Croydon, just around the corner from Penrith Road.
This census is the enumerators copy, and we have much less detail than in 1911. However the 1901 Census will generally describe the:
relationship to head of household
middle names, or initials
exact places of birth
night workers recorded at place of work (although some may be listed twice – at work and at home)
whether Welsh or English speaking (in Wales only)
whether Manx or English speaking (in Isle of Man only)
whether a person was an employee or employer
The enumerator for Cranbrook Road hasn’t been as thorough as he could have been, for example we only get London as the birthplace for Rowland NEEDS (head of household) and we don’t get an indication of whether he is an employee or an employer. Checking google earth we note a house of a similar style and period to 48 Penrith Road. It is much easier to look at the neighbours with these returns as adjoining households in the same street follow each other on the census return.
Missing from 1891
At some point you will experience missing ancestors on a particular census year. This is inevitable as transcriptions vary from one subscription website to another, and careless or just plain wrong transcriptions can mean you lose your ancestors. For the census enumerator, underpaid and with a large workload the pressure of getting the household returns back, poor handwriting or heavy local accents on the doorstep meant he made mistakes.
For a number of years I hadn’t been able to locate Rowland and Alice (and their son Roland) on the 1891 census. Recently I returned to my NEEDS ancestors and tried again. Some of the techniques I have learnt over the years include:
always enter less information in search engines, the greater amount of information; the more chance of excluding your ancestor.
try an alternative spelling (spelling was more flexible in the past with human error a possibility).
can’t find your ancestor; search for a sibling, parent, spouse or child you would expect to find under the same roof.
find the ancestor on the census before or the one after you are searching for. You will get an idea of location and place of birth, and possibly whether there are any inconsistencies. Ages or places of birth may be different between census’s.
access a different website with a different index; different indexers may have transcribed differently.
search under a particular address, particularly if you have an address from a bmd certificate close to the time the census was taken.
Still can’t find your ancestor?
your ancestor may have been missed by the enumerator, or slipped past the enumerator. They may have been recorded on a portion of the census which has gone missing.
they may have been travelling, not in a house or not recorded by the person filling in the schedule.
they may have been serving in the army (it is not until 1911 the British Army overseas was included in the census).
Having tried the above techniques on both thegenealogist7 and findmypast8, I tried a search on findmypast by the residential address, both Croydon and Thornton Heath – no luck. My final attempt was searching by first name only; Alice with Rowland/Roland as the ‘other household member’. I also searched for ‘Camberwell’, where the couple had married in 1889; BINGO. Alice, Rowland and Roland appeared listed as HEEDS. Consulting the actual page of the census I could see why NEEDS had been transcribed as HEEDS, I perhaps would have done the same.
1891 Census 29 Ossory/Ossery Road, Camberwell9
Roland NEEDS, head, male, aged 24, Clerk, born Camberwell.
Alice NEEDS, wife, female, aged 20, born Bermondsey.
Roland NEEDS, son, single, male, aged 1, born Bermondsey.
Rowland NEEDS retired in 1926 after nearly 44 years service on the London Brighton and South Coast Railway. He married again following the death of Alice in 1924, fathering a total of 13 children and celebrating two silver wedding anniversaries. He passed away in 1962 and is buried in Wendover.
May Doris NEEDS went on to marry my grandfather Arthur Parker, in 1924. Moving to Dartford and then Crayford she bore 3 boys, including my father. Like her father she married twice. She passed away in 1983 in Bromley, Kent with her family around her.
Remember you can access the UK Census on the following websites:
scotlandspeople.gov.uk (Scotland census)
census.nationalarchives.ie (surviving Irish census 1901, 1911)
My Talk: Making sense of the census
Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Kent. He delivers courses, guidance, talks, and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See https://myfamilygenealogy.co.uk/ for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation.
What stories could your ancestors tell?
1Source: www.freebmd.org.uk, June 1902, Croydon, 2a 289. General Register Office, certificate BXBY878320, 17 April 1902.
2Source: www.freebmd.org.uk, April 1924, Croydon, 2a 604. General Register Office, certificate MXA608753, 24 April 1924.
3Source: www.freebmd.org.uk, March 1968, Dartford, 5f 642.
4Source: www.freebmd.org.uk, December 1866, Camberwell, 1d 626. General Register Office, certificate BXCA168838, 23 September 1866
5Source: www.freebmd.org.uk, September 1869, Bermondsey, 1d 105.
9Source: www.findmypast.co.uk; accessed April 2015