Accuracy of Census Returns and Registration Documents

Census returns and official registration documents are not always accurate, and often contain misleading information about ancestors.

Census Returns

Ages of adults on census returns are notoriously inaccurate because they are rounded down to the nearest 5 years. For example, someone listed as 20 may be any age between 20 and 25, and that is assuming the person concerned told the census person the right information in the first place. The ages of children aged 15 or below were not rounded down so it is more likely that these ages were correct, but still by no means certain.

Places of birth also present problems on census returns and should not always be blindly accepted as correct. Sometimes the person may not actually know where they were born even though they knew where they grew up, so it became easier for them to state the place they grew up as their place of birth.

Illiteracy was also a problem and many people could not read or write. Forms were distributed to every household in advance of the 1841 census which the householder was instructed to complete.  This would have proved to be impossible if the householder couldn’t write, and if the householder couldn’t read then they wouldn’t have been able to read the instructions. This resulted in forms being completed by children (if they could read and write) or on collection by the census collector (who would have been in a hurry).

Occupations on census returns were abbreviated.  Some of these abbreviations are obviouse even today, but some of them are not. They include the following:

Ag. Lab – Agricultural labourer
Ap. – Apprentice
Army – Member of HM land forces of whatever rank
Cl. – Clerk
FS. – Female servant
H.P. – Members of HM armed forces on half-pay
Ind. – Independent – people living on their own means
J. – Journeyman
M. – Manufacturer
m. – Maker e.g. Boot m.
MS. – Male servant
Navy – Member of HM naval forces of whatever rank including marines
N.S. – Not Stated
P. – Pensioners of HM armed forces
Sh. – Shopman

Registration Documents

Official registration documents often reflect expected social norms rather than the reality. For example, in many areas it was expected that a husband should always be older than his wife, but it was also expected that the differences in ages should not be too large.

In the event that a wife was older than her husband, it led to the wife understating her age and her husband overstating his.   In the event that the husband was many years older than his wife, it led to the husband reducing his age and his wife increasing hers.  In the event that the wife was in their early teens it led to the wife increasing her age to a more acceptable age.