November 12th, 2012

Be Careful of Birthplaces in Census Records

One of the biggest headaches I’ve received from trying to find my relatives in the census is the inconsistencies I’ve noticed when giving the location of their birth. Several times I have found an ancestor, or thought so, only to find in the next or previous census that the person of that identical name and age had given a different birthplace. After much confusion, frustration and countless checking and re-checking of records, it turned out that I had the right person in each census – they had just given a different birthplace each time to the enumerator.

The truth is, many of our ancestors didn’t know where they were born, especially those who were orphans or adoptees. In other cases the parents had moved a long way from where the child was born when he or she was very young. Accordingly, the child had no knowledge of their native parish or county when they became of age. Of course the majority of the populace did know where they were born. The problem however is that there may have been a variety of ways to describe that place. Sometimes you can find an exact address with house number, street name, town and/or county, but all too often you encounter the dreaded “not known” in the address column.

Common Problems with Birthplaces 

I was looking for my ancestors in the 1891 Census of England and Wales when I first encountered the problem with birthplaces. The page on which my ancestor was listed had thirty entries in total. Of those thirty, only half of them gave their birthplace in the common county, parish format, and of the other half, four gave only the name of the county, eight were born overseas, two had “not known” as their entry, which left only one person with a street address – London, St. Martin’s St. My ancestor at least had their county and parish listed, so I was able to trace them further. It did take some doing though!

My great, great uncle James Oliver had actually been born inLondon, but he had relocated outside the city when he was younger, first to Leeds, and then toNewcastle. I had to search around a bit to find him in subsequent and previous census reports, but I eventually did.  The interesting thing was that he had his birthplace listed six different ways in six different census returns. In 1851 it wasLondon, in 1861London, Holborn: 1871 was Middlesex, Newton St, Holborn; in 1881 he hadLondon, Middlesex; 1891 wasLondon, Newton St, Holborn, and finally in 1901 it was different again listed asLondon,St. John’sWood. None of them were wrong however; they just referred to the same place in different ways.

Poor Law Issues

Some people were genuinely unsure of their birthplace, but others may have given incorrect information on purpose. The lives of the Victorian working class were greatly affected by the Poor Law, and many feared being taken from their homes and placed back in their parish of birth – their parish of legal settlement according to the law. The fear of being sent back to their birthplace and placed in a workhouse was so great that many of our ancestors lied in the census, even though the administration guaranteed confidentiality.

Boundary Problems

I also came across a few issues with county boundaries during my research. The previously mentioned great uncle of mine was actually born in Hertfordshire, but you may recall his birthplace listed Middlesex as his county of birth. Initially I was stumped by the discrepancy, but on consulting a map noticed that my uncle’s address was very close to the Middlesex border, so it was easy to see how the mistake may have been made. Occasionally heads of household gave the enumerator the name of the closest market town to which their children were born rather than the actual place. On occasion that market town was across county boundaries, again making for a confusing circumstance. Keep an eye out for historical county boundary changes as well.

There is really no telling what you can find in census records. Though they are indeed popular and valuable genealogical documents, they are prone to common errors. You basically need to make the most of what you do find, and work your way around the obstacles that these mistakes create. Look for your ancestors in each of the censuses. This way you will get a feel for the patterns in the data, making it easier for you to pick out rogue entries. Once you accept that census returns aren’t as accurate as we’d like them to be, and become familiar with the various errors commonly found within, you’ll find that tracking those elusive ancestors will be that mush easier.

Once you find your ancestor in the census returns, feel free to download one of our Free Census Forms. They are professionally designed to make for both a professional presentation, and an efficient and effective mans of recording genealogical data.