A census is the process of obtaining information about every member of a population. It has been performed from ancient times and continues today by civil leaders, so as to have an idea of the size and composition of the subjects.
A census is the determination by an official body of the size of a population of a certain area, most often a country, while at the same time certain other traits are investigated such as age, sex, religion, family situation, profession, etc. In older times, the work was done by civil servants going from door to door.
Nowadays, many countries no longer organize censuses due to the widespread adoption of identity cards, giving the government all the data it needs. However, previously, a census was of great importance for the organizing authority to determine the size of a constituency, and hence, the amount of taxes collectable.
A census is of great value for genealogical research, being carried out at regular intervals (typically every 10 years), and all family members were documented. This allows to accurately track movements and family changes. However, genealogists view censuses as secondary sources of information; primary sources of information such as birth certificates and even obituaries are viewed as more reliable. Still, census information often provides useful information for genealogists and clues on where to proceed to find further primary source documentation.
Researchers must use care when working with census records. Census taker handwriting varies from excellent to illegible. Information may be inaccurate due to spelling variants by the recorder. Some information, especially ages, may be incorrect due to vanity or confusion on the part of the information provider. Birthplaces may not be accurate depending on which family member gave the information. With these and other cautions in mind, census records can be very informative and useful.
Ancient censuses exist, eg by the Persian Empire's military in the year 500-499 BC for issuing land grants, and taxation purposes, and also by the Maurya empire (c. 350-283 BC).
Rome conducted censuses to determine taxes and the Bible relates stories of several. The world's oldest extant census data comes from China during the Han Dynasty. Taken in the fall of 2 AD (57.5 million people were counted).
In the Middle Ages, the most famous census in Europe is the Domesday Book, undertaken in 1086 by William I of England so that he could properly tax the land he had recently conquered. In 1183, a census was taken of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, to ascertain the number of men and amount of money that could possibly be raised against an invasion by Saladin, sultan of Egypt and Syria.
Censuses of genealogical interest
Belgium has had the tradition of doing censuses on average every 10 years, starting in 1846. In total, 14 censuses have been carried out, the last in 1991. See Belgium for details.
Before the independance, censuses where done by the ruling order, eg 1829 under Dutch rule.
The first census in Canada was taken by Jean Talon in 1666, when the age, sex, marital status and occupation of the colony's 3,215 inhabitants were recorded. From then, until 1871, 98 colonial or regional censuses were taken.
The first national census of Canada was taken in 1871 as required by the British North American Act. The act also required that a census be taken every ten years, a practice that was faithfully followed through 1951. Since then, censuses have been taken every five years, following a practice begun in the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta in 1906.
Personal details of Canadian censuses are sealed by law for 95 years. Hence, the most current Canadian census currently available for viewing is that of 1911. The censuses of 1851-1852 (regional), 1871, 1881, 1901, 1906 (prairie provinces) and 1911 are available online at various levels of detail. Other censuses are available through Canadian Archive offices.
In 1795 the first national census was held, and in 1971 the last. On 22 April 1879 it was decided by law to do a census every 10 years. The census was officially abolished in 1991 due to privacy concerns.
The national UK census as it is known today started in 1801, partly to ascertain the number of men able to fight in the Napoleonic wars. The census has been conducted every ten years since 1801 (except for 1941, when the nation was otherwise occupied) and most recently in 2001. The first four censuses (1801-1831) were mainly statistical (that is, they were mainly headcounts and contained virtually no personal information).
The 1841 Census, conducted by the General Register Office, was the first to record the names of everyone in a household or institution. However, their relationship to the head of the household wasn’t noted, although sometimes this can be inferred from the occupation shown (eg servant). Those under the age of 15 had their proper ages listed, but for those who were older the ages were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five years, although this rule was not strictly adhered to. Precise birthplaces were not given - at best the birthplace can be narrowed down to the county in which the person was living.
From 1851 onwards, the census shows the exact age and relationship to the head of household for each individual; the place of birth was also listed, but with varying degrees of precision. Sometimes those who were born abroad have the annotation B.S. or British Subject.
The censuses are reasonably accurate. However, ages in particular are frequently shown incorrectly, though often the difference is only one year; in general the younger the individual the more accurate the age shown. Birthplaces often vary from one census to the next: a common error is to show the place where the census was taken as the birthplace, but most of the variations in birthplace can be accounted for by changes in geographical scale (for example, the nearest town being shown instead of the precise village, or a city being shown instead of the relevant suburb).
Inevitably, a small percentage of the population was not recorded for one reason or another, and in some cases the records are missing or damaged (notably in 1861). Furthermore, all censuses of Ireland before 1901 have been lost or destroyed.
All of the British censuses from 1841-1901 have been transcribed and indexed and are available online; there is a joint project between the National Archives of Ireland and Library and Archives Canada to digitize the 1901 and 1911 censuses for the whole of Ireland, and it is possible this will be completed by the end of 2007.
The United States Constitution mandates that the census be taken at least once every 10 years, and that the number of members of the House of Representatives from each state be determined accordingly. In addition, Census Bureau statistics are used for apportioning federal funding for many social and economic programs.
The first U.S. Census was taken in 1790 by the local U.S. Marshals. Census-takers went door-to-door and recorded the number of people in each household, and the name of the head of the household. Slaves were counted, but for apportionment purposes each counted as only three-fifths of a citizen. American Indians being neither taxed nor considered during apportionment, were not counted. The first census counted 3.9 million people, the 2000 census counted over 281 million people.
By law (enacted on October 5, 1978), census records are sealed for 72 years. Thus, the most recent Census released to the public was the 1930 Census, released in 2002.
Indexes to some of the U.S. Censuses have been produced over the years, making the process of searching old census records much easier. Now, some are available online.
UK census 1881
The image to the left shows the page from the 1881 Census of the family of John Martin.
This Census page records the following information about where the census was taken and where the page is located within the Census record:
- Piece number RG 11/2854
- Folio 17
- Page 27
- Civil Parish [or Township]: Wednesbury
- City or Municipal Borough: Not specified
- Municipal Ward: Not specified
- Parliamentary Borough: Wednesbury
- Town, Village or Hamlet: Not specified
- Urban Sanitary District: Wednesbury
- Rural Sanitary District: Not specified
- Ecclesiastical Parish or District: St. Bartholemew
Then each member of the household is listed, with information about them recorded in the following columns:
- Column 1 - No. of schedule, numbered from 1 consecutively per book
- Column 2 - Name of street, place or road, and name or number of house
- Column 3 - Houses; separate columns for inhabited and uninhabited or being built (entered as 'U' or 'B')
- Column 4 - Name and surname
- Column 5 - Relationship to head of family
- Column 6 - Condition; marital status
- Column 7 - Age last birthday; separate columns for males and females
- Column 8 - Rank, profession or occupation
- Column 9 - Where born; county/place
- Column 10 - Whether
- 1 - Deaf & dumb,
- 2 - Blind,
- 3 - Imbecile or idiot,
- 4 - Lunatic