The Role of the Census Enumerator

Love him or hate him, the Census Enumerator is one of those unknown faces who crosses your path, almost on a daily basis, whilst you research your Family History and someone you just can’t live without!

But who was this mysterious character that could make you yelp with delight one minute, then cry with frustration the next. The role of the Census Enumerator for many of us, is something that you maybe wouldn’t give much consideration to, unless you were stuck with a census brick wall to knock down. But by understanding his role a bit more, it might help you to unlock a mystery or two and might even help you demolish your own brick wall.

The first census was held in England and Wales in 1801 and this was taken in every County and was just a basic national headcount. In some parishes, if you are lucky, there are some unofficial lists of inhabitants, but as this was not an official undertaking, surviving records are sparse. It was not until 1841, that a full countrywide census was taken and the names of all the occupants of every household were recorded. The 1841 census and subsequent censuses, were administered in census districts which were based on the registration districts used in the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages. Each census district was sub-divided into enumeration districts and each enumeration district contained approximately 200 households, or an equivalent area, that the average enumerator could be expected to get round in a single day.

The enumerators were selected for their local knowledge, intelligence, education, reliability and respectability. The role of the enumerator was to deliver to each household a Householder’s Schedule, with written instructions on how the form was to be completed. The head of the household was required, by law, to complete the form on the Sunday night of the census, detailing all those persons who were sleeping in the house that night. Night-workers who were away working, but would be returning to the household that morning to sleep, were also to be listed. Special forms were supplied for asylums, hospitals, schools and similar institutions with over 100 occupants. The enumerator returned the following day and collected the Householder’s Schedule and they checked the contents for discrepancies and clarified anything they did not understand, or helped the householder to complete the Schedule, for example if they could not read or write.

Once all the Householder’s Schedules were collected, the enumerator entered all the particulars in the Census Enumerator’s Book and it is these books that we regularly search on sites such as Ancestry and FindMypast. Both sets of documents were then submitted for checking and examination by the district registrar before they were sent to the Census Office in the General Register Office in London. There they were again checked, and with a few exceptions for the 1841 – 1901 census, the Householders’ Schedules were then destroyed. The exception being the 1911 census Householders’ Schedules, which have been retained.

The data provided was then analysed and recorded in a series of tables as a final Census report. We sometimes forget that the population Census was actually taken for a reason and that it wasn’t actually intended to be used for genealogy purposes! The information taken during the census was used by the Government to plan public funded services including healthcare, housing, education and transport.  Under the Hundred Year rule, the data was and still is inaccessible to the general public for 100 years, but after that, it becomes a treasure trove for anyone tracing their family tree.

There was also specific definitions that the Enumerator’s had to adhere, for example;

A household is defined as: “One person living alone, or a group of people (who do not have to be related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room or sitting room or  dining area”.

A householder is defined as:

“A person who usually lives at this address and, on their own or with someone else: owns or rents the accommodation, and/or pays the household bills and expenses”


So how can understanding the role help you find that elusive ancestor of yours?

Whilst it’s fantastic that all the Census records are now available online, taking things into context is vital when studying the lives of our ancestors. It’s far to easy to grab the image that you were searching for, add those details to your tree and move onto the next one. If you can, time permitting, you should always look at your ancestors neighbours, look at neighboring streets on the pages either side, were there any common occupations amongst them? What were the living conditions like, are we talking about a cramped two up, two down terraced house, or maybe a more middle class suburban life? Ask yourself these questions and you can quickly learn about the social context in which your ancestors lived. Are we in a rural location with agricultural labourers a plenty? By posing these questions and using the information from the adjacent pages of the census, you can quite quickly get a “feel” for the life that your ancestor was leading. I always check the first and last pages of a registration district schedule as well, sometimes you might find some additional notes made by the enumerator at the time, which can give you a real insight into the task he was undertaking and the area that your ancestor lived. Take time to understand the abbreviations used in the schedules, MS = Male Servant., FS = Female Servant and IND = Independent means are just a few examples. Also the definition of a border is different to that of a lodger, so you will gain more from your results if you understand the roles and terminology.

I urge you next time to walk the whole route with the enumerator, follow the whole schedule, ideally whilst looking at a relevant map. A large quantity of maps are available to view online at the National Library of Scotland website.

NLS Website

It’s by comparing the two side by side, that you get a much more rounded view of the place your ancestor lived and the role of the enumerator itself.

If you understand more about the role of the enumerator itself, it can also help you understand how easily your ancestor might have slipped through the net. Although in reality, not many actually did slip through the net, it’s more a case of transcription errors and people turning up in the places that you didn’t expect. On a ship for example, in a hospital, institution, or workhouse, where in many cases individuals were only listed by their initials. A lot of the times, the accuracy and the amount of effort that went into the finished article, that we search online, depended on the integrity of the individual enumerators in the area that you are researching. Local accents will always sway what is finally recorded, in a similar way to the early parish registers’s, an enumerator could only write what he thought he heard, if the head of the household could not read or write. So bear in mind local dialect and accents when carrying out your searches. A reason for a missing ancestor from a census return could be varied, but the most likely explanation is that they are there, but you just can’t find them, but that’s whole different story.

I wrote a mini-series of blogs for Family Tree Magazine about the census itself and some of the reasons you can’t find an ancestor on the Census and the links can be found here;

Exploring The Census

What if a Relative is missing from a Census Year?

Not all Census Enumerator’s were ‘happy with their lot’, some were extremely disgruntled about many aspects of the job, but most were unhappy about what they got paid, given the level of responsibility they were undertaking and also to a lesser extent, the risk they were taking. Walking the back streets of Victorian London for example wasn’t for the feint-hearted! Professional Researcher and Author David Annal gives an excellent example of this in his excellent book:

Census The Family Historian’s Guide Published by The National Archives link available below

Census The Family Historian’s Guide

There there are many great examples, but I have chosen this particular entry for Mortlake in 1871 and this is viewable on the major websites and can be found at the start of the enumerator’s schedule.

“Very badly paid. I think if Government Officials had to do it, they would be paid treble the amount”

Screenshot 2021-07-27 at 14.26.26

Ancestry Link Here

Let me finish with this one……………

A Census Enumerator approached the house of Mrs Karen Mills. After asking her a series of questions and taking down her replies, he asked her age. She chuckled bashfully and replied, “have you asked the Hills family next door?” “No” was his confused reply. ” I’m about as old as them” she told the Enumerator.

The next week she went to check her updated details and she saw this

Name: Karen Mills

Age : As old as the hills

Be careful of what you say………..

Further reading why not try Peter Christian and David Annal’s Census: The Family Historian’s Guide and Emma Jolly’s Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census (Pen & Sword) both packed with lots of helpful information and books that every aspiring Family History Researcher should have in their collection.

Thanks to professional researcher Dave Annal’s new YouTube series, ‘Setting The Record Straight’, I have now updated this blog to reflect a more representative image of a census enumerator. If you haven’t followed Dave’s excellent series then I highly recommend you have a look at Dave’s YouTube tutorials. The link referring to the role of a census enumerator can be found here:

You will find out more about how the census was taken from Dave’s excellent video, far more information contained there than in this blog. Thanks to Dave for helping to set the record straight.

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10 thoughts on “The Role of the Census Enumerator

    1. Thanks Jordanne, I always try to put a little bit of my own humour into my posts, hopefully it works! Although its mostly completed online now, its the same principles today as it was back then. prior to the internet people would have been trawling the house even in the 1980’s!

      Liked by 2 people

  1. What a fascinating read. In my own research I came across the England 1851 census for the small sprawling parish where my family were living. The total number of people was about 300. My Gt Gt Gt Uncle was the enumerator. What I found interesting is that the main ‘manor’ house property had a member of parliament and some of his own nieces were listed as house servants, he recorded his own family and his two brothers families and yet he wasn’t an important person in the parish, just a carpenter. I’ve often wondered if he was put forward by the parish or he volunteeted. His hand writing and spelling wasn’t the best either. The great thing is that the rural nature of the area meant he probably knew most of the farms/properties and people. I had a family member make two entries in 1911, one for themselves and one for brother, however a great deal of the details including relationships, ages were false, and even names crossed through. A tangled web our ancestors weaved.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Glad you enjoyed the post Davey and it’s really great to find a census Enumerator amongst our ancestors. That way you get totally spoilt with copies of their handwriting which are preserved for ever. Local knowledge, especially in rural locations was a key skill in recruiting the right person for the job

      Liked by 1 person

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