Missing from the census

Missing from the census

Why were some of your ancestors apparently not enumerated in a census, and what can you do about it? Simon Wills offers some advice

Dr Simon Wills, genealogist and historian

Dr Simon Wills

genealogist and historian

It’s surprising how often you can’t seem to locate an ancestor in a UK census, when you really would expect the person to be there. There are all sorts of reasons for this, and understanding them can help you deal with the problem when searching census records on TheGenealogist. Sometimes the problem is that your ancestor is in the census but you just can’t find them; sometimes they are genuinely missing.

Probably the single biggest issue is names. Our ancestors weren’t necessarily always consistent with the name they chose to use and the spelling of it. Certain first names are subject to many variant spellings: a good example is Cicely, Sisily, Cisly and so on. Another common finding is that a person baptised, say, Margaret Anna Smith might decide to suddenly start calling herself Anna. This is very common, and our ancestors may not be consistent between their preferred choice of first names – sometimes swapping between them. There is also the problem of abbreviated first names, particularly for men. ‘Bert’ might be short for Bertram, Bertrand, or Albert. ‘Jos’ is the shortened written form of Joseph, but can be misinterpreted as ‘Jas’ for James, or Ian or Jon.

Mary White, she called herself Polly
Baptised Mary White, she called herself Polly throughout her life

Nicknames can be a nuisance in census records too. Jack is traditionally a nickname for John, but was sometimes adopted by others. I have an ancestor called Richard Henry who was known as Jack throughout his life in all official records except his baptism and birth certificate. Polly is another potentially confusing one. It’s usually bestowed on people called Mary because it rhymes with the other traditional name for Mary, which is Molly. However, it might also be used by someone called Pollyanna, Paula, Dorothy (it rhymes with Dolly) and others.

A common problem that you may encounter is a widow remarrying between censuses. At this stage you may not even know that her husband is dead. You search, say, for Robert and Sarah Williams, but Robert has died, Sarah has remarried a Mr Brown, and all her children have also changed their surnames.

Basil Wood Pike
Basil Wood Pike isn’t in the 1861 census because he died in Feb of that year

Finally, of course there is the endless problem of misspelled surnames. Our ancestors might change their own preferred spelling throughout their lives, but officials such as census enumerators might also get it wrong even with very simple surnames such as Wells and Gardener. Foreign-sounding surnames might be written down phonetically, so the French surname Chollet becomes Sholly.

A good tip if you can’t find someone who may have a different name to the one you’re looking for is to look for other people who may be associated with them, such as siblings and parents. You may find them all in the same house, street or village. There is also a tool to help you on TheGenealogist when exploring the census to help ensure you don’t miss people with similar-sounding names. Choose the ‘Phonetic’ option when searching for different spellings of a first name or surname, eg Catherine and Kathryn, or Flynn and Flin. Otherwise, keep an open mind about potential variant spellings, name changes, abbreviations and nicknames when you search.

Horatio Hood
Horatio Hood missed the 1881 census because he was in China where he later died

What you think you know
Once you’ve discovered a written detail about an ancestor, it is easy to accept it as fact even though it might not be. You might be looking in census returns for a laundress born in Hull in 1817, yet if some of these details are incorrect then you may never find her, especially if she has a common name. It’s worth considering why your information about an ancestor’s birthplace, occupation and age may not be correct.

An ancestor may have lied about their birthplace because, say, they have a dodgy past that they’d like to hide or simply because they were brought up somewhere different to their birthplace and now think of that as home. If your family traditionally lived in a fairly small community you can hunt through the census one dwelling at a time and see if you can find them. Yet all of us can make false assumptions about where someone might be living at the time of the census: an ancestor might have travelled almost anywhere for business or family reasons.

People also changed jobs all the time and sometimes pursued very different lines of work from one decade to the next. I did some research recently on a man who was a ship’s captain in the 1881 census, but a vicar in 1891. So career switches can be surprising.

Another consideration is age. There were all sorts of reasons why a person’s age as given in the census might not be correct, not least because it was quite common in the past for people not to know their exact age. Someone trying to hide their identity such as an ex-criminal or bigamist, might deliberately give a false age, as may someone who has a partner who is significantly younger than themselves. Furthermore, in the 1841 census the ages of adults were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five years so a 39-year-old would be recorded as 35. The exact ages were supposed to be given for children under 15 years.

So, if an initial census search is not fruitful, you should challenge yourself and the ‘facts’ that you think you already know about an ancestor. A good tip is to conduct a very broad search instead of a specific one. Instead of searching the 1851 census for Francis Newman, aged exactly 49, a carpenter from Swansea, try instead browsing all the Francis Newmans aged 50 (+/- 5 years) and see what you find. Although it may take a little while, you may find the person you’re looking for because one of the census entries ‘jumps out at you’. Maybe you recognise your Francis because he is pursuing a similar career (eg joiner), is living with distant relations, or is using a characteristic family middle name.

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Of course, it isn’t always possible to browse every person with a certain name – there may be far too many! But the general rule if you are stuck is to do a broader search first and then progressively narrow it down, rather than start with a very specific search.

Missing census data
A small proportion of pages from each of the censuses are actually missing from every online version because the originals have been lost or damaged. So you’ll never find your ancestor if they were on these pages. The 1861 census is by far the most adversely affected with over 850 parishes missing some or all of their content.

You can find out which parts of the UK’s data have been lost by using the Advanced Search on The National Archives’ Discovery site, http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/. Type the word ‘missing’ into the ‘Find all these words’ box and then type the reference code for the census you’re investigating into the ‘Any of these references’ box. Use reference code HO 107 for 1841 and 1851, and RG 9 to RG 14 for 1861 to 1911.

William Barnes
William Barnes is not in the 1881 census because he emigrated to Canada in 1880

Missing people
Perhaps the biggest group of people actually omitted from censuses are civilian seafarers. It wasn’t only seamen who worked on ships, but many ‘landsmen’ too such as carpenters, servants, waiters and cooks. The 1841 census only included seafarers who were on land at the time, so most were not recorded. From 1851 onwards (1861 for Scotland) seafarers on ships docked at a UK port during the census were included as well as those at sea in territorial waters. Despite this, a large number of seafarers still went unrecorded, although accuracy progressively improved in subsequent censuses, when citizens at sea beyond territorial waters were also supposed to be documented. The census information about ships’ crews is filed at the end of the records for the port concerned, except for 1861, when ships were all grouped together in one big section of their own.

Asylum patients in 1860
Asylum patients in 1860 – they may be identified in the census by initials only

An initiative that may help you for the 1881 census is a free online index of all the British ships’ crew lists for that year prepared by the Maritime History Archive in Newfoundland, mun.ca. It is not yet complete but already includes over 375,000 names, most of whom are men from the UK.

Ships passengers
Ships passengers and other people on the move often eluded the census

You will not know where a shipboard ancestor was located during a census, so keep an open mind when searching: their ship could be anywhere. If you can’t find a seafarer in the census then try finding them using merchant navy employment records such as crew lists. TNA has several research guides to help you find merchant navy ancestors – see nationalarchives.gov.uk

Many of our ancestors travelled abroad by ship as passengers. Sometimes this was a temporary move to seek employment, for health reasons or to visit family. In other cases it was to emigrate but again this was often not permanent. If they were at sea or abroad during a census they will usually not be included in the census at all, and this includes many individuals serving with the armed forces. TheGenealogist has a good collection of passenger records which may assist you, as well as indexes of British people who died abroad.

In some instances, men and women in prison or in an asylum are only identified in the census by their initials, in which case they will not be retrieved by a search for their full name. If it’s possible that your ancestor was in a prison or asylum on census night then try to locate the original records of the institution concerned. TNA has research guides for both.

Seafarers are often missing from the census
Seafarers are often missing from the census

The most elusive
Finally, there are those individuals who simply were never recorded in the census at all. Your ancestor may have died earlier than you thought, was travelling on the night of the census, or was of no fixed abode.

Penniless people who travelled from place to place were given names such as itinerant beggars, tramps, vagrants or vagabonds. Others without a permanent residence who journeyed between communities included salespersons such as pedlars, tinkers, and hawkers, and groups such as Romanies and fairground operators. The Romany and Traveller Family History Society (R&TFHS) has many resources that may help you trace some of these ancestors, including some census transcriptions.

Certain people deliberately evaded the census because they did not wish to be found by authority: men who had abandoned their wives and family, mavericks, military deserters, apprentices who had fled their employers, criminals on the run, and so on. A few people didn’t approve of the census on principle or for political reasons: many suffragettes boycotted the 1911 census, for example.

Finally, there is the possibility that your ancestor used an alias. This can be a real problem if it is totally different from their real name. Sometimes you can get a lead if the individual has a conviction or a military record because aliases may be given here, and various legal documents (such as wills) may also specify an alias.

Often the key to finding your most elusive ancestors in the census, is asking yourself the question: What might have changed? Exploring some of the possibilities in a methodical way will often help you find them or explain why you can’t find them.

Read Simon’s guide to researching Royal Navy forebears in our latest print edition, available now at discoveryourancestors.co.uk

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