The quality of the birthplace data in the 1841 census is far from satisfactory. The household schedule contained two columns for this information headed ‘Whether born in the same county’ and ‘Whether born in Scotland, Ireland, or Foreign Parts’. Householders were instructed to write ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the first column. In the second they were to write ‘Scotland’, ‘Ireland’ or ‘Foreigner’. The latter designation only referred to those born outside the UK who were not British subjects. Those born abroad who were British subjects were to be entered in the firsts column with the word ‘No’. The number of British subjects born outside the UK but resident there in 1841 cannot, therefore, be calculated. The enumerators were instructed to abbreviate these entries when copying them into their enumeration books, using ‘Y’, ‘N’, ‘S’, ‘I’ and ‘F” respectively.
In 1851 more informative answers were required. In the case of those born in England, householders were to indicate first the county, and then the town or parish of birth. This order was to be followed in all subsequent Victorian censuses. In the case of those born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies, the East Indies or Foreign Parts, the country of birth was to be stated. The term ‘British Subject’ was to be added to the latter where appropriate. Interestingly, Wales was not mentioned in the instructions on this matter until 1891, when the principality was treated in the same manner as England. Presumably the Welsh had simply been overlooked, and this may affect the form of some entries. Some other minor changes were introduced in the course of the century. In 1861 a distinction was to be made between ‘British Subject’ and ‘naturalised British Subject’. In 1871 those born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies or the East Indies were to state the country or colony of birth; and those born in Foreign Parts the particular state or country.
One may have doubts as to the extent to which householders understood the instructions with regard to those born outside the UK, but those relating to people born in England, Scotland and Ireland appear fairly straightforward. It may be something of a surprise therefore, to discover that the chief clerk of the GR in 1910 said:
“the birthplace tables were probably the most inaccurate of any of the Census Tables but feared they could not be dispensed with as some people seemed to attach considerable importance to the figures. Not only did a great many people not know in which county they were born but a place which was now a town might easily have been a small village at the time of the birth of persons aged 20 years and upwards who were enumerated in other towns.”
Occasionally the grasp of British geography shown by households and enumerators was not strong. However, the 19th century was a period of great re-organisation in local government, and some changes in the county of birth may reflect boundary changes. There was also a tendency to record the place of residence, or the earliest one which could be remembered, as the place of birth. In institutions such as workhouses there appears to be a propensity on the part of some returning officers to give the location of the institution as the place of birth.
Making Sense of the Census Revisited by Edward Higgs. Copyright TNA