Census detective

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: What can the census tell us about society in the past?

Potential activities: Carry out a comparative study of the same street over time in 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1881. What similarities or differences that can be detected?

Download: Lesson pack

What can you find out?

The census is a count of all the people in the United Kingdom on one particular day and is taken every ten years. However, collecting information about a country’s population is not a new idea. The Egyptians, for example, used census information to help them build the pyramids and to give out land following the annual flooding of the Nile. The Domesday Book of 1086 was an early attempt to collect information about who held land in England, but it also provided details about the size of the population.

The first government census in Britain was taken in 1801. It may have been prompted by a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, written by Thomas Malthus in 1798. Malthus wrote that the population was growing so quickly that the country would soon not be able to feed itself. It would be important therefore for the government to find out how many people it did have to feed.

There has been a census every ten years since, apart from in 1941 due to our involvement in the Second World War. Between 1801 and 1831 the census contained only general information about numbers of people. The 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual in a household.

After 1851 it recorded the age of each person, their relationship within the family (such as wife, son or daughter) occupation (job) and place of birth. As everybody in the country was asked the same questions we can also use it to compare different areas at the same time or over a period of time. Use this lesson to see what different census records from 1851, 1861 and 1911 reveal about the past.


1. Take a look at this page for Westminster from the census of 1851

  • Whose census return for 1851 is shown here?
  • Who is listed as the Head of the household?
  • What is this person’s title?
  • Does this give us any clues about how the Victorians viewed the position of women?
  • Where was this family staying at the time of this census?
  • How many children are listed in this family?
  • Who else is listed with the family?
  • Does anything about this document surprise you

Download transcript (PDF, 45.4 KB)

2. Take a look at another page for Westminster from the 1851 census

  • Can you work out from this census return how Mary Frowde supports herself and her son?
  • What different jobs do the men on this census return do?
  • What different jobs do women on this census return do?
  • Are there any jobs which do not exist today? Can you explain why?
  • Compare this page of the census to the previous one. Can you explain any differences between these areas of Westminster?

Download transcript (PDF, 88.0 KB)

3. Have a look at this page from the 1861 census for Blackrod in Lancashire

  • From looking at this census return what were the main industries in this area?
  • Why are they linked? (Clue: think about the location of industry)
  • Find out about the different jobs listed if you are not sure what they mean.
  • What age group is covered by the term ‘scholar’ on this return?
  • What do you think the term ‘scholar’ means?
  • Have a look at the ‘where born’ column. What does this suggest about the families listed here?

Download transcript (PDF, 61.8 KB)

4. Look at this page from the 1911 census

  • Who is the head of this household?
  • What is the name of his wife?
  • What is the age difference between the man and his wife?
  • How many children are in this family?
  • Who else lives in the household?
  • Who might have crossed out the name of Eleanora Maund and written ‘Wife away’ at the bottom of the form?
  • Why was Edward Maund cross with his wife? (see his comments on the bottom of the form)
  • What clues does this census return give us about some men’s attitudes to the role of women?

Download transcript (PDF, 53.0 KB)


The country [England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man – Scotland and Ireland were enumerated separately, and are not included amongst our records] was divided into a number of districts, each with its own enumerator (the person who collected the information). Each household was given a form to fill in. On the day after the census night, the enumerator collected these forms. If the form had not been filled in properly, or if the householder could not write, the enumerator filled it in. Prior to 1911, the information on the forms was then copied into an enumerator’s book, which was then sent to the Census Office in London. From 1911, the individual schedules for households and institutions were collected and returned to the Census Office, where the information was extracted directly from this. From 1921, this process increasingly used machines to assist in the compilation of the data.

At the Census Office, the information in the books was checked to ensure it had been filled in properly. Afterwards, clerks went through the books gathering information on age, jobs and birthplace. This information was recorded in tables for a final Census Report.

Yet, ever since census information has been collected, not everybody has been keen to give their details. Census enumerators sometimes found it difficult to collect their forms! Even as late as the 1950s, it was believed that some people were giving false information. However, the rate of compliance is very high.

To encourage people to provide accurate details, the government has promised that the information will be kept confidential. Since 1920, census records have been closed for 100 years. This means that the only census returns that can be seen at the moment are those up to 1911. The 1921 Census will be released in early 2022.

Teachers' notes

Students explore in source 1 a census return for Westminster from 1851 for Queen Victoria. In source 2, they are able to compare this to another page from the Westminster area in the same year. The source 3 offers further contrast in the form of a census page relating to an industrial area in 1861. The final source, is a census page from 1911 which reveals a connection to the suffrage movement.

All of these census returns can be used to provide unexpected insights, aside from details about jobs and family. In addition, it is worth discussing with your students, the nature of the language used in the return; does it betray particular attitudes or values?

In all of the sources students examine a particular household. How many people lived there, who were they, was the family rich or poor? What sort of home would they have lived in? Using the ‘where born’ column, pupils can trace the movement of a family by looking at where the parents came from and where they were living when their children were born.

The census can be an excellent source for students to find out about the history of their family or local area. Classes can look at a particular street or house or compare two areas in the same census year and work out if they are rich or poor. They could do this by comparing the jobs, the size of household and the presence of servants. The ‘age column’ shows how old children were when they started working and how long people worked before they retired. The census can give information about how long people lived. It is rare to see anyone listed older than today’s retirement age in Victorian census data.

The national set of census returns for England, Wales and the Channel Islands for the period 1841-1891 is available on microfilm held at The National Archives, Kew. The 1901 census is available on microfiche. However, all of these census records are also available online with our partners, though there is a charge to download documents. Most local and county record offices hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own areas, excluding the 1911 census which is only available online.

Census information is used by the government and local authorities to help plan for new schools, hospitals, housing and transport.

External links

Charles Booth’s London
Search a catalogue of over 450 original notebooks and London’s poverty maps.


Connections to curriculum

All key stages 1-4 following schemes of work with a local history element in 19th and 20th centuries.

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Suggested inquiry questions: What can the census tell us about society in the past?

Potential activities: Carry out a comparative study of the same street over time in 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1881. What similarities or differences that can be detected?

Download: Lesson pack

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