Making More use of the census

Reading my April 2015 Blog; Making Sense of the Census I discuss the basics of using the UK Census and the discoveries I made in my family. This got me thinking about the subject of my April 2016 Blog. Pre 1841 UK Census returns.



Pre 1841 I hear you cry, has Robert lost his common sense. Surely as a genealogist he knows the first useful UK Census is 1841 as it lists names for the first time! Well, bear with me because; No… I haven’t lost my senses…


Others do exist!

Pre 1841 UK population censuses exist I promise. This means some information is available and useful for family historians from 1801 – 1831. In fact it is believed up to 750 parishes may have survived being destroyed.

To understand why we have to remind ourselves of how the census was taken. Each household was given a schedule with census questions to complete. This was delivered and later collected by hand by enumerators (in charge of an enumeration district). Enumerators completed forms for each family if they couldn’t themselves. Forms were collected in and details copied into a printed census book. The forms themselves were destroyed. Completed census books were sent to the Government Census Office where clerks extracted the data the Government required.

Now although forms may not have been completed by householders or enumerators for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 some enumerators chose to write down the names and sometimes the occupations of householders as they completed their numerical count.

So pre 1841 census information, useful to the family historian does exist.



1801 – 1831 Census

+ 1801 – 1821; Hendon – detailed records at Barnet Borough Archives

+ 1821; Hackney some returns list heads of households

+ 1821; Shropshire record office holds some returns for Shrewsbury including names of occupiers of streets

+ 1831; Hackney returns survive; lists head of household, occupation and occupations (not names) of other inhabitants. Held in Hackney Borough Archives.


Overseers and clergymen lists

Rather than a census as such overseers and clergymen were sometimes asked for information:

+ overseers; for numbers; how many populated houses, how many families; how many people; how employed

+ clergy; how many baptism, marriage and buried

Neither were asked to compile names, however overseers did note names to compile their lists. So two types of list survive:

+ some overseers counted heads of household

+ some had to count individuals

You can sometimes find these lists for the Parish you are interested in and you may discover valuable information on your family.

Many more lists than those described here exist. Keep your eyes open when you research online or in local record offices.


Even earlier?

Sometimes earlier returns survive, even pre dating 1801. In a letter of 1676 to Henry Compton, Bishop of London, Archbishop Sheldon required the bishop (through others) to compile an ecclesiastical census. This was an assessment of non-conformists nationwide. 19 full listings survive.


Where do I find these Robert?

  • Your local record Office may hold some of these lists from the parish chest.
  • Check GENUKI for holdings (
  • Try Essex University for an introduction to 1801-1831 census schedules/listings online:
  • Local Census Listings 1522-1930: Holdings in the British Isles (3rd edition) Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott (FFHS 1997) ISBN: 9781860060526
  • Pre 1841 Censuses and Population listings in the British Isles, Colin R Chapman (Lochin Publishing, 1998) 5th edition, ISBN: 9781873686188
  • The Compton Census of 1676: A critical edition, edited by Anne Whiteman (Oxford University Press, 1986) ISBN: 9780197260418


So there you are, I haven’t lost my senses; I have found earlier censuses!

Robert Parker is a Genealogist and Trainer, based in Cambridgeshire. He delivers courses, coaching, talks, and research services for those interested in tracing their ancestors. See for further details. Contact Robert to discuss your requirements without obligation. What stories could your ancestors tell?