Double-take your Census Records!
Was your ancestor enumerated twice? Success in locating our ancestors’ families in the census returns generally falls into two distinct types: the majority of families that we find relatively quickly and easily (or with just a few tweaks of the search criteria), versus those ‘difficult’ few families that we just can’t locate in a particular census, regardless of how many times we try again, and again, using different search strategies.
There are numerous approaches and strategies used to attempt to locate those latter ‘brickwall’ families in the censuses, but in this instance I am writing about the former category – the easy-to-find families.
YES! I Found It!
Often when searching a particular census and finding the desired household quite quickly, we dive excitedly into the nitty-gritty of that newly-found census record. We save it, analyse it, we note all the new leads it may reveal – new siblings, other relatives or visitors present, compare ages, relationships and birthplaces to other records, note addresses, occupations and neighbours. We add it to our family tree files and software, record the citation details, and then either continue researching the new leads or move on to look for the same family in an earlier census, or another family in that same census.
STOP! Go Back!
Once you’ve found your family and enjoyed an initial examination of it and saved the record, click back to the list of census search results that you started with, or start a new search, and examine any other census entries with similar results to your household or person of interest.
There is a chance, albeit very small, that your ancestor was enumerated more than once. It happened in many instances, and you may be one of the lucky ones.
I say lucky, because if your ancestor was enumerated twice, you may get the bonus of additional information for that particular census. Details could provide new leads, friendships or relationships, or simply confirm existing details of an individual, their family, friends, employer or relatives they may have been counted with.
- Perform the same search again, this time paying attention to any other similar search results. Look for similarly constructed households – names, ages, occupations, etc.
- Search for the person’s name, age and birth place, but omit the residential place where you expect them to be, in case they were found visiting elsewhere or working away from home.
- Search for each member of the household separately. Husbands, wives and children often went to visit relatives, aunts, cousins… sometimes individually, and may have been travelling over the census weekend or in the preceding days and were enumerated at both addresses. They may have visited an unknown friend, a more distant relative, or a workplace or location that you weren’t aware of.
- Search for names and ages without any places, in case they were enumerated elsewhere and the person completing the schedule guessed their birth places incorrectly.
- Search for names and occupations, in case an employer guessed the age and birthplace of a servant or other employee who wasn’t available to ask at the time, or a hotel proprietor took a boarder's name from his guest book and guessed his age and birthplace.
‘The Census’, Leicestershire Chronicle, 12 April 1851, p1.
How did double-takes occur?
- Census schedules were distributed up to a week beforehand, and households were instructed how to complete them (presuming literacy), but they did not always get it right.
- Households may have completed the schedule early, and then the details of persons who slept in the house on census night may have changed, and not been corrected.
- For the many people travelling between places on the day or night of the census, households may have been unsure whether to include them or not, especially if they travelled between the two places regularly. Instructions were to include someone who was out travelling or working (and was not enumerated elsewhere), but they may not have known if the person was enumerated elsewhere.
'The Census', Worcestershire Chronicle, 28 March 1891, p4.
- Many householders were illiterate and relied on someone else to complete the form for them, for example: a visitor, a servant, a neighbour, a child, or the enumerator/collector when he called back to collect the schedule. Collectors were supposed to ensure the forms were completed accurately, but realistically they could only record what they were told.
- Some families may have not wanted to omit family members who were normally home, or wanted to avoid any stigma if someone was absent and they didn’t want others to know. Perhaps some of the 'fleeing ladies' were recorded by their households after all!
- Young children may have been visiting grandparents, aunts, cousins or friends over census weekend, and included on both schedules.
- If a family was unavoidably absent when the collector returned, they were requested to leave their schedule with a neighbour, filled in appropriately beforehand. In these cases, the enumerator could not confirm details.
- Enumerators were subjected to fines if they didn’t carry out their census collection duties properly, and the incentives were to risk double-counting a household in preference to missing one entirely. For the 1841 census in Australia, the Governor instructed as follows:
- Poor planning or mapping control may have caused different enumerators to double-up on corners or boundaries.
- Some persons may not have been aware that they had been included in a return elsewhere (eg. family, relative, employer) and so they may have allowed an enumerator to complete an ad hoc schedule when queried later.
- Enumerators may not have been aware that a person or family had been counted elsewhere, and on finding householders temporarily absent, may have completed a schedule with what information they knew or could glean from neighbours or lodgers.
- When browsing through whole UK census pieces, I often noticed names of individuals or families that had been crossed out - some that you could still read, and others that were totally blacked over and unreadable. There was often a notation by the enumerator, such as: "visiting London", "enumerated in [next village]", "counted elsewhere", "at mother's in [place]" "staying with friends", some with more detail than others. These were often at the end of an enumeration district, village or hamlet, so may have been examples of an enumerator adding people who were not home when he called, and later deleting them. It is worth browsing the census pages where your ancestors lived, in case deleted entries such as these were not indexed.
- Collectors for the Australian censuses were instructed to start collecting the census returns at daylight the next morning, and to commence with the main roads so they could stop all early travellers (eg. who may have camped out or been on the move), and fill in a return for them if they were not aware of having been counted elsewhere.
- Enumerators were paid according to the number of houses or persons they enumerated (see 1841 enumerator remuneration chart below).
‘The Approaching Census’, Worcestershire Chronicle, 24 March 1841, p4.
The above notice was published in many British newspapers in early 1841, in preparation for the census to be taken in June. The 1841 census was initially planned for the night of 30 June (collected 1 July), but later brought forward to the night of 6 June (collected 7 June) due to the clash with the Sessions.
The most common instances of census ‘double-take’ that I am aware of were for individuals or families enumerated at two different locations.
- At least one of my ancestral families was enumerated twice in the 1841 British census: A young couple and baby were enumerated in Bristol, England, and the wife and baby were also enumerated whilst visiting her parents' home in Pembrokeshire, Wales. Regardless of the cause of this particular double-take, it is great to see all the additional family information, which is another source confirming the identity of her parents and some siblings, as by the next census most of her family had moved to Bristol.
- On another line, one ancestor was enumerated both with his first wife, and also nearby with her replacement! I still wonder if the poor women knew about each other!
Always be certain and verify through other sources that any additional individual or family found is actually yours, and not simply a different family with similar names and ages – especially if the surname is common.
On the very rare occasion that a particular area was enumerated twice on different dates, check online newspapers around the particular census dates to see if any story was published providing reasons. A recent LinkedIn genealogy group discussion highlighted an area in the US that was enumerated twice... same addresses, different enumerator, dated more than two weeks after the first enumeration. [Note: To view this discussion, you would need to be registered with LinkedIn (free) and join their Genealogical & Historical Research Group (also free)].
Online newspapers contain many articles on the various censuses, including instructions and procedures for officials, enumerators and collectors (as they were called in Australia), and complaints and problems with the census design, forms being delivered late, lack of summaries retained by the counties, and the eventual use of the statistics gathered.
The variety of census shenanigans described in newspaper articles also demonstrates how very wary and broadminded we must be regarding the informational content of some census schedules. Use them as clues only, and confirm everything through other sources.
By the time we have hunted down census records for all our lines and generations back as far as possible, and then also traced many siblings’ lines forward again, we may have collected hundreds of census records.
Much care and attentiveness may have been employed in initial online lookups, but over time:
- new collections have been added
- new records have been added to collections
- existing records have been re-scanned
- indexes have been improved and corrected
- you may have found additional clues to trigger broader searches, or
- you may have been unaware that multiple enumeration occurred
... so it is worth another look.
Before online databases existed, census entries were sourced via manual searches on microform, and later CDs (initially with no indexes, then separate indexes). If some of those census entries have not yet been re-checked using online indexes and databases, it may be a good opportunity to do so, to benefit from the broad geographic coverage as well as name variation and other search options.
I stress again that census double-takes are the exception, not the norm. Reviewing all your records is a huge job with a slim chance of success. But be aware that just as some people were omitted from a census, others were definitely counted twice.
The possibility of striking it lucky may entice genealogists to progressively revisit their previous census research, and to be particularly observant with future census lookups, to ensure they’ve not overlooked what may be a valuable genealogical source!