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A census is a count and description of a population. A census may list only selected persons (such as males between the ages of 16 and 45) or the whole population. The percentage of people listed varies with the purpose of the census and how carefully people were enumerated. Different civil and ecclesiastical authorities have taken censuses for their own purposes, which include:
- Population studies
- Military readiness (militia lists and so on)
- Taxes for relief of the poor (called "poor rates")
- Recording eligible voters (poll books)
The national census records are especially valuable because they list nearly the entire population and are readily available at many repositories, including the Family History Library.
Using the national census is essential for Cornish genealogical research. From 1851 onwards, census records give the parish of birth for each individual in a household.
The British government has taken censuses every ten years since 1801, except for 1941. The first census to list every person by name was taken in 1841. Earlier censuses contain only statistical information, but some parishes did compile lists of names while gathering information for the census, a few of which survive.
Perhaps the most valuable pre-national census record is the 1641 Cornwall Protestation Returns where every male above the age of 18 was required to take an oath to follow the "true Protestant religion." This is essentially the equivalent of a census of all adult males in Cornwall, and more than 90% of the men in Cornwall at that time are listed by name. This contains approximately 30,000 names, listed by parish, from 5 boroughs and 197 of the 204 then-existing parishes.
A list of existing pre-1841 census records and other census records is found in both of the following books:
- Chapman, Colin R. Pre-1841 Censuses & Population Listings in the British Isles. 4th ed. Dursley, England: Lochin Publishing, 1994. (Family History Library 942 X27cc 1994.)
- Gibson, Jeremy, and Mervyn Medlycott. Local Census Listings 1522–1930: Holdings in the British Isles. Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies (Publications) Ltd., 1992. (Family History Library book 942 X23gj.).
Census records less than 100 years old have been treated as confidential and not made available for searching by individuals. The "100 year rule" was introduced by government in 1966 but the "Freedom Of Information Act 2000" has been used to nullify this ruling. Therefore the government has decided to release the 1911 Census early, in 2009. However, the "1920 Census Act" specifically applies a 100 year rule to the 1921 and later censuses and early releases of these censuses are unlikely without change in legislation.
|1841||6 June||available now|
|1851||30 March||available now|
|1861||7 April||available now|
|1871||2 April||available now|
|1881||3 April||available now|
|1891||5 April||available now|
|1901||31 March||available now|
|1911||2 April||available now|
|1921||19 June||available from 1 January 2022?|
|1931||26 April||this census was destroyed during World War II|
|1939||29 September (National Registration)||available from 1 January 2040?|
|1941||no census taken owing to World War II||-|
|1951||8 April||available from 1 January 2052?|
|1961||23 April||available from 1 January 2062?|
|1971||25 April||available from 1 January 2072?|
|1981||5 April||available from 1 January 2082?|
|1991||21 April||available from 1 January 2092?|
|2001||29 April||available from 1 January 2102?|
|2011||27 March||available from 1 January 2112?|
Understanding the Census
The 1841 census was taken on 7 June. Most of the later censuses were taken between 31 March and 8 April, every 10 years. Instructions were to list only those persons who spent the night in each household when the census was taken. Those travelling, staying at boarding schools, or working away from home are listed where they spent the night. For example, night watchmen are often listed at their employer’s business address rather than with their families.
You will find the following information in the censuses:
1841. This census lists each member of every household with their name, sex, address, occupation, and whether or not they were born in the county or out of the country. The census takers usually rounded the ages of those over 15 down to a multiple of 5 years. For example, a 59-year-old would be listed as 55.
1851 and later. These censuses list the names, ages, occupations, relationships to the head of the household, and parish and county of birth (except foreign births, which may give country only) of each member of the household.
The census office organized the census by civil registration districts, which were subdivided into enumeration districts. The only exception is the 1841, census which was arranged by hundreds (hundreds are administrative subdivisions of land). On the census films, each enumeration district includes a title page with the district number and a description of the area covered by the district.
2001. In the 2001 UK census, people were requested to give their ethnic grouping and were able to chose Cornish. However, the government have announced that this option will not be available in the 2011 census
Searching Census Records
When searching census records, remember that:
- Ages may be incorrect.
- Given names may not be the same as the name recorded in church or vital records.
- Information may be incorrect.
- Names may be spelled as they sound.
- Place-names may be misspelled.
- If the family is not at the expected address, search the surrounding area.
- When you find your family in one census, search the earlier or later census records to find additional family members.
- Individuals missing from a family may be listed elsewhere in the census.
- Parts of the 1841 and 1861 censuses are faint and sometimes unreadable.
Surname indexes are available for select places for some census years. In big cities, an address will help you find your ancestor in a census, especially where street indexes exist for the city.
The following sources may help you find an address:
- Old letters
- City, occupational, postal, or commercial directories
- Civil registration certificates of births, marriages, and deaths
- Church records of christenings, burials, and marriages
- Probate records
- Newspaper notices
- Court records
- Tax records
- Rate books
- Voting registers or poll books.