Why I love the 1851 UK Census

Why I Love The 1851 Census: Despite having used 8 different censuses, the 6th census (1851) is my firm favourite – and here’s why…..

Whilst the 1940 US Census continues to cause a storm with genealogists across the Atlantic, I’ve fondly turned to my favourite UK census of them all – the good ol’ 1851.

A page from the 1851 Census.
The 1851 census builds bridges between data.

I’ve used 8 UK censuses in my research – 1841-1911 – and each one is different – adding or omitting different questions, but it’s the UK Census that took place on the night of the 30th March 1851 that’s my favourite. Here’s why…

Building data bridges

I use the 1851 census to verify information that I’ve picked up from the scant data of the 1841 census. This enables me to build bridges with data – following families from the 1841 census, through to the 1861 census.

The 1851 census also gives the opportunity to verify those people who were alive before 1837 when certification was introduced for births, deaths and marriages. Whilst the 1841 census captures a more of those people, it’s not much more than a head-count with poor spelling and some seriously unreliable ages.

More household detail

The 1851 census was the first to ask and record answers about relationships between household members. This piece is very useful – again helping me decipher the 1841 and pre-certification records.

The 1841 did ask whether people were born in the same county as that which they were being recorded in – so gave a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in the county box, but the 1851 census goes further by also recording the parish AND county of birth. It also records whether the person had a disability – namely blind or ‘deaf-and-dumb’.

The State Opening of The Great Exhibition in 1851
The Great Exhibition took place in 1851.

The 1851 census also asks for more detail about occupations – and it’s here that you can find some interesting insights into what your family members did, and it can give you an insight into where in the social classes they would have sat.

The 1851 census has been publicly available since 1912 as it was not covered by the 100 year retainer rule. I have no idea what the demand was like back in 1912 when it became available, but I doubt that it matched the US 1940 Census demand – which saw 37 million website hits overload the website within 8 hours.

Were people queuing up in the streets in 1912 to read the 1851 census? I’m guessing they probably weren’t.

Why not love the 1911 UK census?

Just for the record, the 1911 census is a close second – for the sentimental moment you see your ancestor’s handwriting, and the very useful ‘years married’, ‘number of children born’ and ‘number of children living’ data.

The reason that the 1911 census is not my first love is partly down to being of an age where I personally knew many people who were alive during this period, and still know relatives whose siblings were born before it took place. Also, being part of a relatively close family, I’ve found the 1911 census not as revelational as it’s 1851 counterpart.

Which is your favourite census and why?

Tweet your love for the 1851 Census RIGHT NOW!

Author: Andrew Martin

Andrew Martin is owner and lead writer for History Repeating and Family Tree UK. Genealogist, historian, writer, photographer and would-be archaeologist. He'd love a time machine, but worries that it might take all the fun out of it.

7 thoughts on “Why I love the 1851 UK Census”

  1. I love the 1851 census for the fact that though the 1841 census said if they were born in or out of the county, if out, you had no way of knowing where. If they survived to be recorded on the 1851 census it gives the first indication of where that person was born; and clears up ambiguous relationships on the 1841 census. So, yes, have to agree with you, 1851 is great!


    1. Hi Carol, thanks for reading!

      Precisely, the jump in information given by the 1851 census is fantastic. Even if it turns out to be wrong, it still gives you a lead for those people who you’ve been totally stumped by.


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