Working with 1841 Census Returns

If you’ve been using the census returns to follow your family tree back through the years, you may have noticed that the 1841 census returns don’t often show up as hints (a term used on the Ancestry website for showing possible records that may match a person in your tree).

The 1841 census is a bit different to all the subsequent census returns; recorded ages are rounded down to the nearest 5 years for anyone over 15 years of age; birthplaces were recorded as being in the county, rather than giving parish details as in later census; and it does not record the relationships between people in the same household. So for my Complete Unst Family Tree project all those people who were born on the island of Unst (marked on the map below) are recorded as being born in “Orkney and Shetland”, i.e. the full area covered by the map below! Just a slight difference.

There is however, a certain pattern that can be recognised in an 1841 census return which is useful, especially when you already know a lot about the members of the household from subsequent census returns. You can spot the parents and children from the ages; parents will be listed first and then the children in age descending order – sometimes with the male children listed first followed by the female children. The hard part comes at the end of the record for each household where a random selection of others may be listed; servants – usually identifiable as such from an occupation of “FS” (female servant) or “MS” (male servant); unmarried aunts; aged parents, and other random relations. Your only hope with these is that, if they are staying with the family in 1841, that it won’t be the only time. So it really pays to fully understand the family and it’s close relations, before trying to apply an 1841 census return to them.

They are worth searching for though (and you will most likely have to search explicitly for them due to the age and birthplace differences) as often they will provide details of older children that have moved out and got married by the next census, which is invaluable with linking together these early records, especially when Old Parish Marriage Records don’t record parents of the marrying parties.

My advice? Leave the 1841 census till last, but don’t ignore it completely.

Morag would love to hear what you think. Leave a comment here.

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