Life Style of Your Victorian Ancestors – Using the Census

on Tuesday, 15 October 2013. Posted in Wiltshire People

This week I’ve been changing my census lecture into a census workshop for a family history course we’re running at the History Centre. It’s reminded me how really useful the census is to local, social and economic historians, as well as to people looking for their ancestors. However if used properly you can also find information about the living conditions of past generations of your family. You really need to look at a complete parish – easy for a village but for a town you may only be able to look at two or three enumeration districts. Perhaps easier to do using the census on microfiche than on line.

If we use a village in Victorian times as an example we can look at the following. Where did they live? Not always easy in a village if roads are not named but if you’re able to go there you may be able to follow the enumerator’s route and get an idea of the sort of house in which your family lived. Much easier in a town where streets, although not always house numbers, are given. However if there is a house number beware in case the number has changed. The other day I found an Australian on my doorstep delighted to have found the house in which his great grandfather had lived in 1901. I had to point out to him that the numbering in the street had changed in the 1930s and that my house was number 9 in 1901 and he needed number 17 a little further along the road.

From 1891 the number of rooms, if under five, in a house is provided. This gives you a good idea of how many children were sleeping in a bedroom. You may also find that the family took in a lodger, even if the house did not seem large enough; this was a useful source of extra income. Look at the neighbours, the children will have played together and the families are likely to have been friends. Also look at occupations in the parish – men in the same line of work are likely to have been friends. In the earlier censuses the size of the farm and workforce are given in a farmer’s entry; it may be possible to determine on which farm your agricultural labourer ancestor worked. Again if he’s listed as a blacksmith or carpenter, but did not have his own business you could identify the person for whom he worked.

The census will tell you where everyone was born, or where they thought they were born, and you may find children in a family were born in different places. This may indicate someone working on different farms or, depending on the locations, could indicate a father in the army or navy. For my workshop I’ve been looking at Biddestone in 1851 and 1861. A surprisingly large number of families had moved out of the village in the ten years between those dates. This probably indicates an open village, one without a dominant landowner, where people moved in and out looking for both work and marriage partners. In a closed village, where one person owned much of the property and employed most villagers, you would find very little movement and many people would tend to marry within the village.

Using local directories as well as the census you can find out what shops were available; most villages would have been largely self sufficient for much of the Victorian period and the carrier’s cart would have brought in anything that could not be obtained locally. A few things to remember. Although women rarely have an occupation listed they would often have been working on the land at hay making and harvest, as well as other times. The census was taken in late March or early April when they would have been at home. The information on the census is what people thought that ‘They’ (officialdom) should know, not necessarily reality. Children working on farms may be listed as scholars, you may never find a marriage record for some husbands and wives, while some farmers and their housekeepers may have had an entirely different relationship. Also people could not always remember how old they were, where they were born, and husbands and wives sometimes gave the wrong information about one another through ignorance. However the census gives a brilliant portrait of a community at one moment in time and study of it can tell you a great deal about how your ancestors lived.

Mike Marshman
County Local Studies Librarian

Comments (2)

  • Jack Archer

    Jack Archer

    15 November 2013 at 19:10 |
    My gtgtgrandfather was born about 1807. He was a cordwainer and moved to London where he married. The 1841 Census gives his place of birth as 'Suffolk' -- I need the name of the parish if I'm ever to know the names of his parents. Apart from the daunting prospect of trawling through every parish register from Suffolk, is there any other way to find out?


    • Naomi Sackett

      Naomi Sackett

      20 November 2013 at 11:51 |
      Hi Jack
      It's a shame you can't find him on the 1851 Census onwards as that also stipulates a parish. Not always correct, but certainly a place to start. The IGI is also a place to try, online at, but again although caution is needed, it can be worth a look. We would suggest contacting the Suffolk Record Office at as they know their records best and should be able to give advice. You could also seek advice from the Suffolk Family History Society who, like ours in Wiltshire, will contain experinced researchers and may even recognise the surname as coming from a certain part of the county. And lastly... good luck with your search!


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