Work in Victorian Britain: The Census as Source Material

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

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

Enumerators' books

Enumerator's book page
Page from enumerator's book

Although the printed census returns allow us to undertake a good deal of occupational analysis, they do not do so for every locality. It is true that they break down occupational details to districts within counties, but not below the level of main towns. Accordingly, to undertake more localised investigations, the entries contained in the census enumerators' books must be used.

To help appreciate the possibilities, look at the copy shown here of an actual page from one of these books. Looking towards the bottom of the sheet the name of the enumerator, John Pearson, can be seen in the original, although it is too faint to be reproduced clearly.

'... made full use of the abbreviation 'do' (short for ditto), thereby saving himself a great deal of time and effort. '

By looking through the census enumerator's book that John Pearson compiled, it is possible to find the details he recorded about himself and his family. He wrote down these details in a fairly clear hand and, as instructed, made full use of the abbreviation 'do' (short for ditto), thereby saving himself a great deal of time and effort.

John Pearson's entry

John Pearson's own entry
John Pearson's own entry
Pearson was a small farmer who worked just 12 acres of land. As can be seen in the extract reproduced here, he lived with his wife and two other people, William and John Eccles, who were described as servants. Probably they were farm servants as opposed to domestic servants. This inference is drawn not only because they lived on a farm, but also because Pearson tended to distinguish domestic servants when he noted them in entries relating to other families.

'... it's important not to assume too much.'

In the 'relation to head of family' column, William Eccles is given as John Pearson's nephew. If this were so, then the relationship would have been on his wife's side of the family. Yet no family relationship is given between Pearson and John Eccles.

Other possibilities are that the Eccles were not related or that William Eccles was in fact nephew to John Eccles. Plainly, uncertainties can arise in trying to establish family relationships from census evidence of this type and it's important not to assume too much.

There is also uncertainty with regard to the labour force employed on the farm. Pearson notes that he employed one labourer. The implication we might draw here is that this man was a day labourer. In other words, he differed from a farm servant who would have lived in the farm house, as in the case of William and John Eccles.

If this was so, then no fewer than four men would have been available to work a very small farm. And Mary Pearson may also have been available to help out. To explain this situation is very difficult, though one possibility is that the Eccles were living on the farm temporarily, perhaps staying with kin in order to find work.

Tracking censuses over time

'Punch' cartoon: Filling in the census paper
Punch cartoon: The census form - '... so you call yourself the head of the family do you?'
Apart from undertaking the type of occupational analysis already discussed in relation to the printed returns, the schedules enable us to see how individual families earned a living, taking into account such matters as the number of wage earners and the range of work that family members undertook.

The occupational structures of families from census to census can also often be traced, enabling studies to be made of changes in household economies over time. The extent to which mothers worked - an issue of no little concern to those who had strong views about the proper role of mothers - can be assessed in a similar way.

'... domestic servants in Lancashire often came from agricultural counties in the south ...'

Additionally, we can gain insights into how some groups of workers earned a living by moving from one place to another. For example, domestic servants in Lancashire often came from agricultural counties in the south, young females locally preferring to take factory jobs.

Finally, and to demonstrate just how much information can be gleaned from census returns, schedule entries help with the issue of how far children took the same sorts of jobs as one or both of their parents, thereby shedding light on the strength of kinship links and why these links were maintained.

Published on BBC History: 2004-11-04
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