Cornwall Online Census Project

“Bringing YOUR ancestors to YOU, free of charge!”

Sepia photograph
The Jolly family from Ladock

About UK Census Returns

The Industrial Revolution, the growth in the population and the breakdown of the old poor laws under demographic pressures led to an outburst of social and political reform in the early part of the 19th century. It became a matter of importance to know how many people there were in the British Isles, where they lived and how they earned a living. The 1800 Census Act ordered a head count of the population every ten years from 1801. The information gained from the early census counts was basic and gave only a rough guide to the numbers of men, women and children and their employment or otherwise.

From 1841 the census districts were based on the Poor Law Unions. The information became more detailed and the census was taken household by household listing the occupants on a specific day in March or April (June in 1841) of the first year of the decade. This new type of census was treated with suspicion and lies were often told to the enumerators for fear of what the authorities might do to unregistered and ‘illegal’ residents. Forms (schedules) were distributed and then collected by ‘Enumerators’ who also wrote down the details for the illiterate and tried to check that the entries were correct. The enumerators filled in the entries in large returns which are what survive.

Actual dates that each census was taken were


The 1841 census is hideously complex so this section is worth reading first. You have to consider how the census was taken.

Ever since 1837 the county had been divided up into Registration Districts. These were originally called Superintendant Registrar’s Districts. As an example, Sancreed was in Penzance district. These were further subdivided into Registrar’s Districts. There were seven in Penzance SRD—Penzance, St. Buryan, Uny Lelant, Ludgvan, St. Ives, Marazion and St. Just in Penwith. These were further divided down into Parishes—in 1841 these were ecclesiastical parishes, but later they became civil parishes. We have come across some bits of the 1841 where they separated out parts of a parish that were inside a borough and parts that were not. They really didn't know what they were doing. Continuing the example, St. Just RD had three parishes—St. Just in Penwith, Sancreed and Morvah. Each parish was divided into Enumerator’s Districts (more than one if it was big enough) and an Enumerator appointed. The EDs were numbered in Registration Districts so St. Just was 1 to 10, Sancreed 11 to 13. Here it gets complicated again because Morvah was forgotten so it used the first 17 pages from ED 1. I said they didn't know what they were doing.

Now the Enumerators went out and distributed their Schedules. These were single pages with some instructions (We would really like to see a copy if any one knows where one is, they were not preserved). In 1851 onwards they were numbered but not in 1841. They were supposed to be filled in on the day after the night of the census by the householder. Later they were collected up by the Enumerator (who no doubt, helped some people fill them in). He took them all home and copied them into the Enumerator’s booklet. Some enumerators made a complete horlicks of this. The booklet had 20, 40 or 60 numbered Pages depending on the size of the patch plus the unnumbered leader and trailer pages. These were sent in and were checked, counted and otherwise mined for statistics, usually marking the sheet with a thick stub of a pencil.

For some reason unaccountable to man or beast, when the Enumerator’s booklets were collected up for the Public Record Office they decided to do it by the old feudal Hundred. Sancreed was in the Hundred of Penwith. This Hundred did not quite tally with the Superintendent’s RD and Penwith Hundred also included most of Redruth SRD and parts of Helston SRD as well. They then sorted the parishes (very) vaguely into alphabetical order within the Hundred. Then the Enumerators booklets were bound into groups of between 1 and 6 (presumably for the benefit of handling on the shelves and these are called Books. Each leaf of paper was stamped with Folio numbers at the top right had corner of the right hand page when opened (a folio is a leaf of paper so the number refers to the front and back of that leaf) The numbers were consecutive from one right the way though the book ignoring ED boundaries. Not all the folios survived but the most vulnerable were the first and last of each ED so presumably the books were not bound until quite late. I suppose that a certain number of books would fit onto a shelf, so each shelf was given a Piece number. These piece numbers were also used for the films.

So back to the example

In this project we use the ED number because the database was originally based on 1891 which used them more sensibly. However they are not a great deal of use for 1841. We also highlight the Parish name which is much more useful.

This sort of reference is useful for the PRO Films and for Archive CD Books CDs.
Class HO107, Hundred Penwith, Piece 144, Book 14, Folio 4.

This sort of reference is useful for the County RO and for Fiche.
SRD Penzance, RD St. Just in Penwith, Parish Sancreed, ED 11, Page 1.

Two totally independent ways of counting. And even then you have to count the schedules down the page because they were not numbered.

1841 Enumerator’s Instructions

1851 Enumerator’s Instructions


The Census, from 1861, was organised by Registration District (these are the names in Bold in the index) followed by Registration Sub-District. Each sub-district is complete on one or more Pieces, numbered consecutively, and grouped together into RG (Registrar General) Classes, one per census year.

Within each RSD there were Enumeration Districts numbered consecutively and sufficient were allocated for each Civil Parish. Within each piece the Folios were numbered consecutively without regard for ED boundaries. Within each ED, the Schedules were numbered consecutively as issued. These schedules were distributed to households and collected after Census Night by the Enumerator. No doubt he helped some people to fill them in as well. He then took them home and copied them into his book in order. At the start of the book he described his district and at the end are some totals by page. The books went up the chain for counting and other mining for statistics during which time they received additional marks and adjustments. Over the years some pages have been lost, all in all leaving them in the state we see them now.

To reference a household uniquely, it is usually sufficient to quote either, for the Public Record Office:—

    RGcc/pppp Folio ff Sched ss

where cc is the class number and pppp is the piece number or, for the County Record Office:—

    RD Name, RSD Name, ED e, Page pp, Sched sss

but it can be helpful to also add the Civil Parish as well. The Ecclesiastical Parish can be useful when correlating entries with parish records but played no part in the Census except being recorded for information. The RD and RSD are contained in the index, the transcript pages themselves contain the rest of the information.

1891 Enumerator’s Instructions