Victorian family history

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Childhood through time, Crime and Punishment, Family History, Local Histories, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the sources reveal out about Victorian people?

Potential activities: Answer the questions, use the census to discover information about other Victorians.

Download: Lesson pack

How can we find out about the life of a Victorian child?

History books are often full of the lives of king and queens, famous leaders and thinkers. What about ordinary people? These people are also our ancestors or distant relatives in the past. They lived through the times in history that we now read about. Can we find out about their lives? With a bit of work, the answer to this question is yes!

Every time somebody is born in the UK, a record called a birth certificate is made. It contains facts such as the baby’s name, where and when they were born, the name of their parents, and what the parents do for a job. We all have a birth certificate if we were born in the UK.

Marriages and deaths are also written down in the same way. Making these records is called civil registration. It began in England and Wales in 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne. There should be a record of everyone who lived after this date.

The Victorians used another set of records called the census to collect information. The first census records began in 1801 as a simple count of the number of people who lived in each house throughout the country. This was done every ten years. We still carry out the census today.

From 1841 onwards, the name of every person was written down. After 1851, other facts were added such as the age of each person, their relationships within the family (wife, son, daughter), occupation (job) and place of birth. These facts can tell us quite a bit about the Victorian family.

Use the documents in this lesson to discover the family history of William Robert Towers, a young Victorian boy.


1. William Towers was born when Queen Victoria was on the throne. His birth certificate gives us important facts about his family.

  • When was William born?
  • Who were William’s parents?
  • What was William’s mother’s last name before she married?
  • What did William’s father do for a living?
  • Where did the Towers family live?

Download the transcript (PDF, 48.1 Kb)

2. You can find out more about William and his family from the 1871 census return.

Each column in the census tells us different things. The first column gives the address of the family. Reading from left to right, you can find out the name of the person, their relationship to the head of the family (usually the oldest man), if they were married or not, their age, occupation (job) and place of birth.

  • Where did William live?
  • What did William’s father do for a living?
  • How old was William’s mother?
  • Where was William’s mother born?
  • How many brothers did William have?
  • Where was William’s sister born?

Download the transcript of William Towers’ census record (PDF, 54.1 KB)

3a. This source shows us why William Towers was sent to prison in 1872.

Write a story about William Towers’ crime and what happened after he was let out of prison. Use the questions for Source 3a and Source 3b below to plan your story.

What was William thinking when he carried out his crime?
Why do you think William stole the rabbits?
Do you think he wanted them for pets or might the family have another use for them?
When William was caught, how do you think he felt?
When William was caught, how do you think he felt?
What do you think it would have been like to be put in prison for one month, without seeing your family?
Do you think William was too young to go to prison?
What do you think ‘hard labour’ means?
How do you think he felt when he came out of prison?

Download the transcript of charge sheet for William Robert Towers 1872 (PDF, 49 Kb)

3b. This source is a census return for 1881.

  • Where did the family live in 1881?
  • Where had they lived according the census for 1871? [Source 2]
  • Do you think they moved because of William’s crime?
  • How old is William in 1881?
  • What job did William do?
  • Are any of his brothers working?
  • How do you think William felt at this point?

Download the transcript of 1881 census return (PDF, 55.1 Kb)

4. This is the census return for the Towers family for 1901. This date marks the end of Victorian times, as the Queen died that year. By this time, William had married and had children.

  • How many rooms did William’s family have?
  • How many children did William have?
  • Did any of William’s children work?
  • What jobs did they do?
  • How old were his children?
  • Why do you think these children were working?
  • What does this tell us about their family life?
  • Do you think William’s family was rich or poor? Give reasons for your answer.

Download the transcript of 1901 Census return (PDF, 51.8 Kb)


Victorian Britain was a tough place to grow up in if a child survived the high infant mortality rate. Poor children received little or no education and were forced to work from an early age. The concept of a ‘childhood’ as time of protected development as we know it today, was not something understood by many Victorians. Many children lived in crowded industrial cities in poor sanitary conditions, within large families with little money for buy food. They started work from an early age in factories, mines or domestic service. Others worked on the streets selling matches, watercress or road sweeping for example. In the countryside children worked in domestic industries or as farm workers.

Crime was a problem. Punishments were hard for people who broke the law, even if they were children. After spending some time in prison at a young age, according to a document here, we see William Towers at 20 years old listed in the 1881 census living with his family. He worked as a bricklayer with his father. The family had left the area where they were living at the time William was sent to prison, later the family moved to Battersea.

Teachers' notes

In this lesson students can trace the history of a boy called William Towers who lived in the Victorian period. We have used his birth certificate, plus census returns for 1871, 1881 and 1901. Also included are the charge papers for William’s spell in prison after stealing two pet rabbits. The questions encourage students to investigate the sources and try and build up a picture of his life. All sources have simplified transcripts to help them understand the complex language of official documents. Square brackets indicate words that were not in the original document.

The intent is that students will gain a sense of how sources can be used to find out things about the past. The tasks are designed to progress in difficulty as more sources are introduced, so that students will gain confidence in drawing their own conclusions from the evidence. They can also develop their understanding of the concepts of change and continuity by discovering something about the childhood of a poor Victorian boy. Mapping the family history of a particular Victorian child over time can be used to develop chronological awareness.

A class could be organised into groups to work on the different sources and then report back their findings. Other activities could include:

  • Write a biography of William or draw his family tree (see below)
  • Construct a short drama about the imprisonment of William, or role-play an interview with him about his family life
  • Create a timeline of the Victorian period, including the dates of William and his family
  • Use the census material in source 5 to look at other families listed there in terms of their size, occupations, housing and so on
  • Use the sources as a stimulus for creative writing

Create a family tree

Using family history sources like a birth certificate or a census return you could create a family tree with your students to show the different relationships in William Towers’ family. As our story is about William, we place him at the centre of the tree. His date of birth can be added by using his birth certificate.


We also know the names of William’s parents. They can be added to the tree above William, joined to him by a line to show he is their son.

We know that William Robert Towers and Mercy Gridley married. We can use either ‘=’ or ‘m’ to show this.

We can also add William’s sister and brothers to the tree. Usually, older children are placed on the left, with the youngest on the right.

Now add the names of William’s wife and children and other relatives to this family tree.

Further activities

Students could also draw their own family trees with (with help from their families/carers). Use a large piece of paper for adding photographs or other records to the tree. Encourage them to ask about stories that they remember about their parents and grandparents. Imagine what it must have been like to be a child when they were growing up. They could to write down/record some of these stories. Hopefully, children will be encouraged to gain a sense of where they come from and how this links to where they are today. They can see how things have changed or remained the same. Teachers could use this activity as homework or as a project-based exercise to compliment the tasks in this lesson.


Birth Certificate for William Robert Towers, 1861
Census Return 1871, Catalogue ref: RG 10/868
Charge sheet for William Robert Towers, 1872, PCOM 2/290/52
Census Return 1881, Catalogue ref: RG 11/648
Census return 1901, Catalogue ref: RG 13/483

External links

Watch our ‘Unboxing the Archive’ video introducing Joseph Charman’s story:

Connection to curriculum

Key stage 2
A study of an aspect of history or a site dating from a period beyond 1066 that is significant in the locality

Key stage 3
Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901: Britain as the first industrial nation – the impact on society

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 2, Key stage 3

Time period: Victorians 1850-1901

Curriculum topics: Childhood through time, Crime and Punishment, Family History, Local Histories, Victorians

Suggested inquiry questions: What do the sources reveal out about Victorian people?

Potential activities: Answer the questions, use the census to discover information about other Victorians.

Download: Lesson pack

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