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The Census Enumerator

March 20, 202111:50 amLeave a Comment

This year most households will be filling in the census online. In the past, the responsibility for collecting information fell to enumerators.

Between 1801 and 1831, overseers of the poor and parish clergy had provided statistics on the number of households in their parishes and baptisms, marriages and burials recorded in parish registers.  They followed instructions issued by John Rickman, a clerk to the House of Commons but many interpreted this in their own idiosyncratic way as you can see by the records that have survived – pre 1841 census returns

From 1841 things were a little different for a number of reasons. The London (later Royal) Statistical Society had pressured for a household schedule listing individuals and a host of more personal questions. Rickman died in 1840 and the responsibility of census taking was passed to the newly established General Register Office.  Finally, local census enumerators were appointed.    

Frances and James Rawlings and family MI9005/1.
James was a farmer in Ryton, near Condover and enumerator for the 1891 census.

Enumerators were appointed by the local registrars on the following basis:

He must be a person of intelligence and activity; he must read and write well and have some knowledge of arithmetic; he must not be infirm or of such weak health as may render him unable to undergo the requisite exertion; he should not be younger than 18 year of age or older than 65; he must be temperate, orderly and respectable and be such a person as is likely to conduct himself with strict propriety and to deserve the goodwill of the district. 

 Edward Higgs, A clearer sense of the census, PRO 1996 (p 13)

From 1891 women could also be enumerators.

The 1841 census was a little rushed and instructions to the enumerators not always helpful – for example there was confusion about lodgers and borders, night workers and merchant vessels.  Over time the instructions improved and more questions were added to the census.

Each enumerator was responsible for an enumeration district – a sub division of the larger districts which were based on the Poor Law Unions.   Each enumeration district was supposed to have a maximum of 200 houses – although the distance that enumerators had to travel was considered so rural areas could be much smaller. Over time, enumeration districts did not always reflect changes in local house-building or population density so a city enumerator could be very busy. 

Enumerators were paid a fixed sum plus some allowance for travelling.  In 1871 they received a guinea as standard plus 2s 6d for every 100 extra people over the first 400.

The enumerator visited each household and left a printed schedule with instructions about filling it in.

Census of England and Wales 1861 No. – Householders Schedule … to the occupier You are requested to insert the particulars specified on the other page, in compliance with an Act … This paper will be called for on Monday, April 8th by the appointed enumerator. 665/3/670

They returned the morning after census night to collect the completed schedules. If the schedules weren’t filled out properly, the enumerator asked for extra details. If the householder was not to complete the schedule (perhaps because they were illiterate) the enumerator would fill it out for them.    This sometimes causes problems especially if enumerators weren’t familiar with place names – there are as some rather strange spellings of Welsh and boarder parishes!  Generally, the enumerator was local and so familiar with the district but there are occasionally houses in remote areas that have been missed – or perhaps it was a wet morning and the enumerator couldn’t be bothered!  In general, however, the census seems to have been completed conscientiously. 

The enumerator then copied the household schedule into their enumerators books which also included a summary of each district and information to place the returns in context. 

Of particular use for house history is the page where the enumerator describes their route. This can be extremely helpful for the earlier census returns where house numbers aren’t given.

Written by sarahd

One thought on “The Census Enumerator”

  1. Gwyneth Wilkie says:

    For more information on census enumerators’ pay see
    On day I hope to visit Shropshire Archives again.
    Best wishes to all in the meantime.

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