Nick Barratt: Britain's "Great Exhibition" 1851 Cenus Information Available Online

Roundup: Talking About History

On Thursday, the 1851 census was made available online by Ancestry ( This is the earliest set of census records to contain detailed information about our ancestors - the 1841 returns merely provide name, approximate age and occupation - and it provides a snapshot of the British population in one of the most important periods of our nation's history. The Great Exhibition took place in the same year, showcasing the cream of British talent. Together, the two events offer a unique insight into the lives of our ancestors.

For the first time, the names of more than 17 million people who lived in households throughout England and Wales in 1851 can now be found online. This is a landmark for family historians because it completes the main sequence of census returns (from 1851 to 1901) available on the internet and capable of being searched by name.


In the 1841 census, the naming of every individual in each household was a radical departure from the earliest records, which had been taken since 1801. But the 1841 enumerators were asked to record only the age, gender, occupation and (effectively) county of birth for each person. And even the age data for adults over the age of 15 was a rough approximation, rounded down to the nearest five years.

A decade later, more sophisticated questions were being asked. In addition to name, gender and exact age, the marital status of each person was recorded, along with more descriptive data on occupations and the parish and county where they were born. For researchers studying their ancestors a century and a half later, these returns offer a window to the past, which is rich in detail and enables us to investigate not only what our ancestors' names were, but also what they did for a living and where they had originated.

Essentially, the 1851 census records become a gateway to other documents, such as parish registers. These are particularly important for people born before civil registration started in 1837. Other sources might include material on an ancestor's occupation or even property information. It is becoming increasingly popular to trace an ancestral home and, while many houses from the 1850s no longer stand, you can at least work out the sort of lifestyle your ancestors might have enjoyed.

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