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The 2011 Census: History and Research for Liverpool (or, Why fill in the census? A historian’s perspective)

Photograph of the Scandinavian Seamen's Church, Liverpool

20100626_Liverpool_views_013, by Friar's Balsam, via Flickr

This year sees another census taking place across the United Kingdom. Censuses have been carried out in the UK every ten years since 1801 (with the exception of 1941 – the Second World War) and are therefore are amazing sources of information for family historians. Alongside other sources they can also be useful to the local historian, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to get your hands on them.

A History of Censuses

The first census in England produced perhaps the defining document of the medieval country: the Domesday Book.

The Book was produced as a way of measuring the wealth, and therefore taxability, of the whole of England, and was perhaps the natural thing for a new, invading, king to administer. Some unconquered parts of England were not included in the survey (notably parts of Cumberland and Westmorland), but for the majority of the country, Domesday Book continues to be an important primary source of information, including as it does the size of land divisions, industry, animal holdings and land owners’ names.

It’s probably well known that Liverpool, having yet to be founded, does not appear at all in Domesday. But many places on Merseyside do, including West Derby, Toxteth, Aigburth, Croxteth and Garston.

The Domesday Book has been an invaluable resource for local historians for years, and is these days available in modern published versions (such as the Penguin Classics translated version). Also, you’ll find the Victoria County History (if you can get your hands on one) bases its organisation on the Book. In turn, I based Historic Liverpool on the VCH, which is why this history of Liverpool is is divided into the townships found in these Victorian volumes.

Modern Censuses

The first modern UK Census took place in 1801, and the exercise was repeated every 10 years after that (along with some at the five year point in between).

For family history purposes, 1841 marked an important change: whereas the first four surveys had simply collected head counts in all regions, this one included the names of all people living in each household.

The 1911 census, released two years ago is the first one where you can read the form filled in by your ancestors (see also www.1911census.co.uk).

The next census will take place this year, on 27th March. There’s a £1000 fine for not filling it in, but also remember the legacy you’re leaving for future family historians (one you’ve enjoyed yourself as a researcher, perhaps). Liverpool City Council is launching a campaign to encourage people to register as central government money is allocated based on population. So current and future censuses still play the role they did back in 1801.

Research using censuses

If you’re a family historian you probably already know the many ins and outs of research with censuses. Many of the older ones are available online (with newer ones becoming available gradually under the 100 year rule). So what can you do with the census data as a local (as opposed to family) historian?

  1. For city historians the censuses can be used in a similar to Gore’s Directory: if you’re studying a small area then cross reference the addresses with the professions mentioned, and you have a good idea of the character of an area. Was it a residential area full of dock workers? Were there corner shops in the area? Or pubs? Was it a richer area full of merchants, factory owners and diplomats?
  2. Landscape change over time: following on from the above point, perhaps you want to know how a residential area changed over time. In Liverpool, Everton, Toxteth and Kirkdale were the first suburbs, expanding to cater to the rich who wanted to escape the city. Later these areas were covered with terraces for dockworkers. Later still the slums were cleared and modern housing erected in its place. While old maps can show direct evidence for this change, the census adds an extra layer of detail.
  3. Immigration: for Liverpool as much as other cities, many events and the tale of expansion are related to the areas in which incoming migrants lived. In our city (‘our’ in the most inclusive sense!) Welsh communities could be found in the north and east, the Scottish in the north and centre, Jews first around Brownlow Hill and then in the southern suburbs (Childwall, Allerton and Gatacre), the Chinese in… well, Chinatown, and the Scandinavians in Liverpool’s ‘Sailortown’ (Park Lane area). Censuses fit in here as they contain information on religion and language, and therefore the culture of different communities.
  4. If you’re more technically minded, you might even make use of the National Archives’ Domesday on a Map, or its Domesday Places dataset.

Perhaps you have other suggestions for uses of census data in local history; feel free to share them with us in the comments!

Recommended Read

Book cover for Tracing Your Liverpool Ancestors, by Mike RoydenIf you’re interested in finding out more about your ancestors (as is the most usual role for the census!) then there’s no better place to start than Tracing Your Liverpool Ancestors: A guide for family historians, by noted Liverpool historian Mike Royden. Mike is the man behind the Local History Pages, and has also appeared on TV and local radio. The book also contains a lot of local history too, as historical context is ever important when researching your family tree!

3 responses to “The 2011 Census: History and Research for Liverpool (or, Why fill in the census? A historian’s perspective)”

  1. I started looking at census information when doing research on the history of a building (in this case, a farm and related buildings including a slaughterhouse). Tracing the info through the decades helped to build a picture of how a community changed over time, so I ended up digressing into social history – noting changes in the composition of a household, numbers of servants, new occupations, where people moved to, etc. Also of interest was finding out how long families stay in an area, who the main landowners are, and so on. It’s quite surprising how you can build a picture out of census data.

  2. Martin says:

    Hi Sean,
    Yes, I started looking into this when I found out about this year’s census. Having read the Our Liverpool book it began to dawn on me just how much information it contains. The possibilities are mainly limited only by your imagination!

  3. Martin says:

    There’s an article comparing the 1911 Census to the 2011 census on the BBC News Magazine website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-12324970

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