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The Scottish Censuses of 1841 to 1911
The best place to start with any genealogical research is knowing where people were at a particular time, and their relationships. From there it is possible to work backwards to births and marriages, forward to marriages and deaths, and laterally to other information such as occupations and land ownership.
The background to the various censuses will be covered later. For now, if we look at an example of a census return, we can see how much information can be gleaned. The one shown is for Cupar, Fife, in 1901 and specifically the household of James Fleming Bremner, Chief Constable of Fife at the time.
We can see that at Sandilands, in Cupar, lived James Bremner, aged 75; his wife Isabella aged 68; and two single daughters, Mary, 34 and Keith, 32. Furthermore, we have Bremner's occupation as Chief Constable of Fife and Kinross, and while he and his wife were born in Kirkcaldy (some 20 miles to the south), their daughters were natives of Cupar. The headquarters of Fife police were then in Cupar (the County Town at the time) so we might assume that Bremner moved there because of his work, after he met and married Isabella; but that would need to be checked. Notice also that their house has ten rooms with windows and that the family employed two servants who lived in (or at least were there overnight on the census date) and came from smaller towns nearby. Neither Mary nor Keith worked (except 'at home') and this, along with the large house, suggests a well-off family with the Head of Household on a good salary, as might be expected of Fife's senior police official. We are not told whether the household members spoke Gaelic (or indeed English!), but none, it seems, was deaf and dumb, blind, a lunatic, an imbecile or 'feeble-minded' (these now uncomfortable terms had strict definitions).
Among the things we do not know are whether the Bremners had any other children, not living at home (they did, in fact), or had any other living relatives. But what inferences can we draw? Assuming a 'regular' marriage and no hanky-panky beforehand (not as unusual as we are sometimes led to believe in Victorian times), the Bremners had wed at least thirty-five years before, when James was about 40 and Isabella 33 or so, and thus in or before 1866. We can also give approximate birth years: James in 1825–27 (he might be just 75 or almost 76), Isabella in 1832–34, and the two daughters some time between 1866 and 1870 – although we might remember that unmarried ladies slightly past their first bloom would occasionally 'misremember' their true ages when the census came around.
Already we have quite a picture of the Bremners – well-to-do, living in a comfortable house with servants, James still working as Chief Constable even though 75 and therefore (presumably) in reasonable health, married to a lady some seven years his junior and with at least two children.
Yet, if anyone had looked for these individuals in the 1901 census at the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS, now part of NRS) or on ScotlandsPeople, they might have been missed, as they were indexed as follows:
Taken from the 1901 census for Cupar, Fife, GROS 420/00 009/00 015, with permission. For explanations of Civil Parish, Ward, Ecclesiastical Parish, School Board District, Quoad Sacra Parish etc., see pp. 23, 82.
Taken from the 1891 census for Cupar, Fife, GROS 420/00 009/00 007, with permission.
Taken from the 1901 Census Index in 2007, but since corrected except for the age of 45 (should be 75)
Not only had the names been transcribed wrongly from admittedly hardto-read handwriting, but Bremner's age is wrong by thirty years. An incautious researcher might assume this really was a family called Brunner, and a widowed mother and two younger sisters living with an elder son, James, aged 45. (The spelling has now been amended, but not the age.) But compare this with the 1891 census for the same address: ten years before, we see James Bremner (65); his wife Isabella (58); daughters Mary (24) and Keith (22); and also two sons, Herbert (20) and Louis Rae (17), both students, unmarried and living at home (on the census night at least). The servants are different.
This confirms our presumed birth dates and marriage year ranges for the Bremners, and adds to our knowledge two boys, who were likely away and married by 1901, or possibly dead.
We still do not know if there were any older children. Further searches would confirm these details, and we will return to the Bremners as a full case study later.
The point is there is a great deal of information in a census which makes it a good jumping-off point for a genealogical investigation. The other point is that not all records are indexed properly (some not at all) and that it is necessary always to consult the original sources – although, as we shall see, not even these can be fully trusted.
Incidentally, ScotlandsPeople is always happy to correct mistakes if notified via the website, as happened in the case above.
How the census came about
The first census of England had been carried out under William I (William the Conqueror) and the results collated as Domesday Book in 1086. There were later census-like exercises, for example, in the sixteenth century when bishops enumerated the number of families in their dioceses. Landowners also conducted periodic census of their workers and tenants, although usually only Heads of Households. The first national census in Britain took place in 1801, and there has been a further census every ten years since, except for 1941 when the Second World War took priority – although there was a similar but simpler exercise on Friday 29 September 1939 for the purposes of issuing National Identity Cards which became the basis of The National Health Service Central Register in 1948.
However, the earliest four censuses (1801, 1811, 1821, 1831) were rather different in aim and character from the later ones, and it was only from 1841 that these are of much use to genealogists, as names were recorded.
The 1801 census
The first modern census, in 1801, was considered necessary because of growing unease about the demand for food in Britain, especially in the aftermath of the publication of Thomas Robert Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798. The upshot was the Census Act or Population Act 1800 (An Act for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and the Increase or Diminution thereof 41 Geo. III c.15), which legislated for a Census of Scotland, England and Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. Ireland was not included until 1821. The process was remarkably swift, which underlines the importance attached to it – the Census Bill was presented to Parliament on 20 November 1800, was passed on 3 December and received Royal Assent from King George III on 31 December. The first census was held just fourteen weeks later, on Monday 10 March 1801. This was possible because a House of Commons clerk called John Rickman was passionate about the idea and was prepared to take on the analysis of the results and the preparation of abstracts and reports, which he did for the 1801 census and the next three.
The 1801 census collected two sorts of information: the first was the numbers of families and houses, the numbers of individuals and their occupations; the second collection the numbers of marriages, christenings (not births) and burials, which allowed those who followed the new science of population statistics to estimate the rate at which the population was growing or declining, what proportion was of working age and so forth.
In an earlier century, it might have fallen to the Church to collect such data. Even at this time, in Scotland, it was parish registers collated by the local ministers which recorded individual baptisms, banns and burials (see Chapter 3), just as they largely wrote the Statistical Accounts.
But this exercise would take a greater army of recorders than the Church could muster, and in any case it was seen as a secular exercise and the province of government. Luckily, there was already an administrative infrastructure in place. In England, the local census enumerators were usually the Overseers of the Poor. In Scotland, it tended to be the local schoolmaster (often known as 'the Dominie'), along with other literate, educated and trustworthy individuals – doctors, clergymen, lawyers, merchants – acting as the army of paid volunteers. These enumerators would visit each household, institution or ship within their allocated district just before the census date and deliver a form (called a Schedule) to the Head, or the person in charge of the house, who was required to complete it for collection on the day after the night of the census. The enumerator would check the completed forms – or complete them if they were not, by questioning whoever was in – copy the information into preprinted books of blank forms and take them to the local Registrar, who checked the data again and forwarded it on to the central office in London, where it was checked again, collated and published in summary as a Parliamentary Paper. The individual details of households and people, which would have been of great value to later generations of historians, sociologists and genealogists, were destroyed in the vast majority of cases. The summaries include the totals of:
Houses: Inhabited, By how many families occupied, Uninhabited
Persons: Males, Females
Occupations: Persons chiefly employed in agriculture, Persons chiefly employed in Trade, Manufactures, or Handicraft, All other Persons not comprised in the two preceding Classes
Total of persons: England, Wales, Scotland, Army, Navy, Seamen and Convicts
As well as the overall national summaries there were county tables organised by Hundred, Parish, Township or Extra-parochial place, and separate tables for the Cities of London and Westminster. The diligent Mr Rickman managed to complete his work and publish the Enumeration of England and Wales by 21 December 1801 with Scotland following on 9 June 1802.
The 1801 census estimated the population of England at 8.3 million; Wales at 541,000; Scotland at 1.6 million; the number of those in the army, navy and merchant marine about 370,000; and 1,410 'convicts on hulks' (see box overleaf). This made almost 11 million souls, plus a further 4 million in Ireland (estimated from hearth tax returns) and 80,000 on the Channel Islands, the Scilly Isles and the Isle of Man.
Approximately fifty places in eighteen counties have census fragments from 1801–31. Consult the booklet Local Census Listings 1522–1930 by Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott, published by the Federation of Family History Societies and available from various online bookshops. Some local libraries and family history societies have census information from 1801 for certain parishes. They can be obtained from the FHS in question, or the Scottish Genealogy Society.
The 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses
The next three censuses used the same model as the 1801 census. Again, there is little individual information and no names. More information and images of statistical summaries are available at the website of the Great Britain and Ireland Historical GIS Project based at the Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis, The Queen's University of Belfast (www.qub.ac.uk/cdda/gis/eandw.html). There is also some limited statistical information at county and, in some cases, parish level at A Vision of Britain (www.visionofbritain.org.uk/gbhdb/index.jsp). It may be useful to know how a particular area's population changed in these years, in terms of total number, age distribution or occupations. Scottish parishes tend to have population statistics and other data available more so than for burghs, where the amount of information (and whether it was collected at all) depended to some extent on size.
For instance, the parish and Royal Burgh of Auchtermuchty in Fife had a population of around 2,000, and the same or fewer from 1900 to 1950. But in 1851 it peaked at over 3,700. The number of houses followed exactly the same trend (435 in 1801 and 587 in 1901 but a high of 794 in 1851), so the population surge wasn't due to the same number of families having twice as many children. Nor did the parish or burgh boundaries suddenly grow and shrink again in the nineteenth century. The answer, or a clue towards it, is in Slater's Directory, published in 1852, which says: 'A considerable trade is carried on here in manufacturing linen & cotton goods for Dunfermline, Dundee and Kirkcaldy houses, and this forms the principal business of the place.'
Cottage handloom weaving was a major enterprise in Fife and elsewhere in the mid-1800s, and Auchtermuchty had perhaps a thousand looms in its heyday, making linen from the flax grown and heckled in the surrounding Howe of Fife. The introduction of the steam loom and large factory-mills ended the time of hand weavers with their white trousers and blue-striped carseckie (a canvas overshirt) working for less than 5s. (25p) a week.
The 1841 census
With the passing of the Population Act 1840 (Act 3° & 4° Victoria, Cap. 99, intituled 'An Act for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain'), there was a new form of census. The responsibility for this (in Scotland) lay with the Sheriff Substitute (equivalent to a magistrate) in each county, and for the first time individual names were recorded. There were stiff penalties for giving misleading information (see p. 20). As still happens today, the census enumerators delivered forms to each household, which they would later collect, check and enter into their printed book of forms. The census information we have today is from the enumerators' transcript books, as the original schedules were destroyed.
Census returns were collected according to enumeration districts (roughly equivalent to parishes, but not always exactly) and larger ones further divided into sub-districts. This was to ensure that an enumerator could reach every household on the same day, so reducing the chance of a duplicate or missed entry if someone happened to be in another house.
The enumerator entered marks to show where each household and/or building ended, and indicated whether the house was uninhabited (U) or being built (B).
Since 1855, when civil registration began, each registration district (RD) has been given a number and this was applied retrospectively to the 1841 and 1851 censuses, and to the pre-1855 parishes. The numbers run roughly north to south and east to west by county, and within a county are numbered by alphabetical parish or RD name. Therefore, a complete reference for an 1841 census record includes, the Parish/RD Number, Enumeration District (ED) Number, Entry Page Number, Parish/RD Name, County Name, and Census Year, such as 405/00 001/00 007 Auchterderran Fife 1841. In this case 405 is the parish or RD (Auchterderran); there may be a suffix (in this case there isn't, so it is given as /00); 001/00 is the ED, with a supplement if an additional book was required (/00 if not); 007 is the page number, but remember that this refers to the first page of a double-page, so the entry in question may in fact be on page 8 (as is the example on p. 31). A description of the district and its boundaries is given at the beginning of each new enumeration district in the records.
There were stiff penalties for evading or misleading the census-takers.
Understanding GROS data – example 709/01 005/00 007
Remember that a household may appear across two pages, so if the relevant entries are near the top or bottom of a page, check the page before or after. Genealogists should remember that not everyone listed at an address actually lived there, and not everyone who lived at an address was necessarily there on census night – this would include travellers and visitors. The following information was recorded about every person staying at the address on the census night:
Surname and first name: If, as happened in lodging-houses, hotels and inns, a person who slept there the night before went away early and the name was not known, 'NK' was written where the name should have been
Age: Correct if fifteen or under, but rounded down to nearest five years if over fifteen
Sex: Indicated by the column in which the age is recorded
Profession, trade, employment or if of independent means: Occupations were recorded as abbreviations, e.g. Ag. Lab. (agricultural labourer), Coal M. (coal miner) or H.L.W. (handloom weaver). See Table 2, p. 22.
Born in the county of the census: Yes, No or Not Known (NK) Born in the country of the census: Yes or No, or sometimes S for Scotland, E for England and Wales, I for Ireland, F or FP for Foreign Parts
Problems with the 1841 census
Some parishes are known to be missing from the records. A lot of these are in Fife (see Table 1) because the records were lost overboard during their transit by boat to Edinburgh. Even though people might have moved after census night, and therefore could be counted twice, it was impossible to repeat the exercise for these fourteen Fife parishes, which represented about 30% of Fife's census data, much to the dismay of genealogists ever since. St Kilda was also missed out, possibly because the regional manager did not want to travel all the way there to count the 109 souls on the island. A later voyager made good the omission.
Excerpted from "Scottish Genealogy"
Copyright © 2017 Bruce Durie.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Scottish Censuses of 1841 to 1911,
2. Statutory Registers of Birth, Marriage and Death Post-1855,
3. Old Parish Registers,
4. Church and Religious Records (including Catholic),
5. Census Substitutes,
6. Trades, Crafts, Professions and Offices,
7. Courts and the Scottish Legal System,
9. Local Records: Burgh and Parish,
10. Scottish Wills and Testaments,
11. Land and Maps,
12. Feudal Land Tenure, Baronies and Titles,
14. DNA, Genetic Genealogy and 'Scottishness',
15. Clans, Families, Crests and Tartans,
16. Scottish Heraldry and Coats of Arms,
Gaelic Words in English,
Scots Legal and Genealogical Glossary,
Latin Glossary for Genealogy and History,
18. Internet Resources,
19. Scottish Monarchs: Reigns and Genealogies,
20. Organising your Research,