Using the Census Records in Schools

Most people will have thought about census enumerator books with regards to family history. What about the use of them as part of local history? Census records are not just a family history tool but can open up discussions about how and why things were recorded, as well as looking at how the information was gathered. Why did the Victorians want to know so much about everybody? Why do we still use the census today?

Next year will be the release of the 1921 census records, with 2022 predicted as the arrival date on sites such as FindMyPast. This will be the last census to be released that has pre-WWII information as the 1931 census, for England and Wales, was burnt in a mysterious fire in 1942. The census records are not just for those searching for their family, it can shine a light into a world of hidden stories.

I started working with census records in 2018, when I realised that the only way I could write my microhistory for my dissertation was to collate all the information from 1851 to 1901. I learnt quite quickly that it was not a small task. I ended up with thousands of records in an excel spreadsheet, but the detail it allowed me to write about was enormous.

What is the benefit for teaching?

Teaching local history is a difficult task as the stories are not there for the ordinary working people. By looking at census records you can begin to tell stories. The stories I told were of the changes in people’s lives over several census years. I learnt about the changes to our farming community, as well as the fall in cottage industries. I followed the fortunes of people moving in and out of the village. Tracked how they changed their lives from ordinary farm workers to better occupations. I saw how the change in attitude affected the way that women were viewed in the census records.

The Industrial Revolution is considered as such a small time period, but places such as the Home Counties, the South West and the East were very late developers. These proto-industrial areas were just starting to find their feet in the mid to late nineteenth century. We concentrate our teaching on how the Industrial Revolution affected the Empire, communications, and laws. Our rural areas have just as much of a story to tell, as do the growing urban areas, far deeper than can be covered in any textbook.

How to do it.

I spent an hour this afternoon looking at the High Street in one of my microhistory villages, just to see what I could glean from the information. I only looked at 1851 and 1901. I chose the High Street as the name very rarely changes. Other roads often change names, or swap names, as I have found out on numerous occasions!

As all my data is in an excel spreadsheet it takes very little time to actually collate the information required, more time to actually analyse and write it. I am going to write my findings as well as the questions that came to mind whilst I was writing. Some of these were the same questions I asked myself as I wrote my own microhistory, and are excellent jump off points for discussion.

The High Street, Wing.


In 1851 the population of the High Street totalled 320 people living in 80 houses. This averages out at four people per household. By 1901, the High Street population had dropped to 274 people, however, six more houses had been built, bringing the average household size to just over 3.

Questions to ask would be whether that sounds like it is overcrowded? What I haven’t looked at, and did for my microhistory, was the composition of those households. How many were only made up of single people, couples or family groups? For this village, extended families tended to create a number of overcrowding issues. You can also look at maps to see if there is the possibility of picking up the increase in houses, as in my previous blog post on maps.

Gender and age

In 1851, there were 171 males in the High Street and 149 females. By the time we get to 1901 this has changed considerably. We know there is a population drop-off from 320 to 274, and this shows us why. The change is mainly down to a drop in males. From 171 down to 122 in 1901, with females slightly increased to 152.

Why? What has happened to the male population in the High Street to have a significant drop? Looking at age we see that the issue is in the Under 10s and Over 60s brackets. In 1851, there were 44 male under 10’s living in the High Street, this has dropped to 19 by 1901. We can tell it is an issue because the female numbers have only changed from 37 in 1851 to 38 in 1901. Males are also not living as long as the females. In 1851, there are 22 males over 60 living in the High Street, by 1901 that has dropped to 11. With the females of the same age range, there are 13 in 1851 and 23 by 1901. To get deeper into this you can then look at widows to see if there are more females than males. What is causing females to live longer than males? What are working conditions like? Are they more likely to go into the local Workhouse than females? All of these can be explored.


For me this was one of the most intriguing parts of my microhistory. I was taught at school that people only moved out of the villages during the Industrial Revolution to find better jobs out of agriculture. When I carried out my study I found this wasn’t the case. For my other subject village, I discovered that people moved into the village from other villages a few miles away, still as agricultural labourers. I have cheated slightly by using Wing for this particular blog as the Rothschild estate played a large part in the increase in movement, but it also made it more obvious when compared to a ‘normal’ village.

In 1851, 56 people in the High Street were not born in Wing, of those the furthest came from 20 miles away. This comprised roughly 18% of the residents. By 1901, this had increased to 23% with the distances travelled far greater, for example, Barrow-In-Furness, the furthest at some 250 miles away.

Why did people migrate into the villages? My study was far more detailed than this. It went into the jobs people moved from, as well as looking at those aged between 5-21, unmarried, who moved out of the village, were they ended up and what occupation they did. It opened up the stories of people’s lives. I particularly like the Rothschild coachman who moved to New York and Paris, before coming to Wing. How do we know? His children were born in those places and recorded in the census records. There were also the stories of betterment. With once agricultural labourers moving out and becoming policemen, one even became the Clerk of a local Union Office. Social mobility was on the rise, something that is sometimes forgotten in our teaching.


We tend to think of the High Street as bustling places, but in Victorian times this wasn’t the case. The Wing High Street, in 1851, had 36% working as agricultural labourers and 22% in the straw plait industry. By 1901, 32% of residents worked in agriculture with no straw plaiters at all. In 1851, 57% of the High Street were in employment, the youngest being aged 6, as a straw plaiter. In 1901, this had dropped to 39%, the youngest being 13 and an agricultural labourer. Why did this drop off occur? Was it the straw plaiters? What occupations did women do? Were they different in 1851 to 1901?

By looking at occupations you can see the trends, as well as how women’s role in society changed over the 50 years. The subject of child labour can also be tackled, that it wasn’t just in factories that children worked from a young age. By 1901, the High Street was becoming more recognisable, with hairdressers and grocer shops and that is obvious through the census records and can easily be tracked.


Finally, this is the part that needs more research than just looking at two census records. There are 12 of the same family names recorded in both 1851 and 1901, a lovely topic would be to investigate the families and see how they relate to the two census records. This is something I am in the process of doing, however, my dataset for that goes back to the 1500s with parish records, not just the census information. This is one long-term project which I think will take some years!


I hope that you can see, despite the work being tedious to begin with, it is worthwhile doing a project on the census of a road. There is always your local family history society as they may already have the censuses available in spreadsheet format. I remember thinking that I could never do a project like this myself, but, after a false start, it came so easily and was enjoyable. I am hoping to do this with the Year 8s next year, as part of their Industrial Revolution work, it will add an extra touch as well as further discussion points.


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