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21 April 2014
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Work in Victorian Britain: The Census as Source Material

By Geoff Timmins
Punch cartoon depicting the filling in of a census form
Punch cartoon depicting the filling in of a census form 

Take a look at some original 19th-century census documents - they're a rich source of information about the working lives of ordinary people in a bygone age.

Printed abstracts

In the 19th century, hand-written census schedules from all corners of Britain were collated centrally, and used to produce printed census abstracts. At local level, occupational details were collected by the local census enumerators, to produce printed census abstracts (see image below). These abstracts allow us to assess occupational distribution during the Victorian era, at national and regional level.

'Many described themselves as millers or butchers, but others had occupations - such as proprietor of lunatic asylum ...'

Printed census returns can also be used to undertake further analysis of occupations. For instance, they enable us to calculate the proportion of a given population (in a county, say) that the enumerators recorded as being in employment. Such a calculation gives us a snapshot measure of the working population, though it does not take into account all those who worked occasionally or on a part-time basis.

The returns can be used, too, to calculate the importance of particular types of occupation within the broad categories we have distinguished, especially in the manufacturing and service groups. As a result, we can gain a clearer impression at region level of which industries tended to localise most strongly (such as pottery in Staffordshire). The printed abstracts also allow national and regional breakdowns to be made according to other criteria, notably age and gender.

The census extract shown below is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the wide range of secondary occupations in which farmers could be engaged. Many described themselves as millers or butchers, but others had occupations - such as proprietor of lunatic asylum or tax collector - which had a far less close relationship to the land. It should be noted, however, that the people described are still classified in terms of their primary occupation.

Detail from 1851 census abstract
Detail from 1851 census abstract ©

Published: 2004-11-04



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