Interpreting Census Information

It is not always easy interpreting census information because the details provided on a census return varied from year to year.

If you are not familiar with the area, town addresses can be puzzling because the enumerator could choose his own route as long as he did not miss any houses.

You may discover he had not gone down a long street in full, deciding instead to cover the side streets as he made his way down the main street.

You could find your ancestor had been placed in an 'institution', which was usually an establishment large enough to hold approximately 200 people such as a prison, workhouse, barracks or hospital. For example Weedon Barracks in Northamptonshire was listed separately to Weedon village. 

This meant the establishment was large enough to be classed as an enumeration district by itself. The inmates of the institution were listed, but sometimes only the initials of the inmates was noted. The people who worked in the establishment were also noted. The institution was usually put at the end of an enumeration district.

Another aspect to consider when looking at census information is that all the households had their own schedule number. The last occupants of the house were represented by the enumerator placing a diagonal line just before the name column and the last occupant of the building he defined by using a double diagonal line.

You may find there are several different households within one building, and these households could include family members, lodgers, boarders, servants and nurses. Both lodgers and boarders paid rent, but boarders ate with the main family.

When interpreting census information, it is important to consider that all household occupants are defined by their relationship to the head of the household. Please use caution however when looking at this side of the information. I have come across circumstances where a niece or nephew could be either the head's niece or nephew or his wife's if he was married.

The birthplace of household occupants could be very useful because it could help you to further your research, as knowing the place of birth could help you to track down an appropriate entry in the parish register or find the correct birth certificate using the GRO Index.

The occupant may have lied about their age and making it prudent to look for a few years either side. Sometimes however, and this is always disappointing for the genealogist, the occupant did not remember where they were born so the birthplace was listed simply as unknown or the column left blank.

Census Information - possible army connection?

If there is a different place of birth for every child, and one of those places was an army town such as Woolwich or Aldershot, it may be worth considering that the father may have been, or could still be, in the army and had been posted around the country, staying in different barracks. 

My own great-great-great granduncle George McJannett Botterill(latterly McJannett-Jannett) served in the Army and his daughter Eliza Jane McJannett (Jannett) was born in Woolwich in 1850. 

Of course, it could just mean the father had had to move away from his home parish in order to find work.

I have written guides to the 1841 Census1851 to 1901 Censuses and the 1911 Census.  It is also possible to discover more about census returns in general and how to interpret the census reference.


  1. Family Tree Resources
  2. Census Returns
  3. Census Information