Northumberland and Durham Family History Society

The Northumberland and Durham Family History Society’s north Northumberland group were pleased to welcome our speaker who had journeyed from Tyneside to help us Get Behind The Census Images.

Anthea Lang recently retired from her post as local history and heritage manager with Gateshead Council and has extensive experience in local history and genealogy.

She regularly gives talks and runs courses on both subjects and knows all the pitfalls which may be encountered when pursuing family history.

She gave some useful background information to the notion of the census, explaining that the Napoleonic Wars and associated food shortage necessitated accurate information on the numbers of people in different areas and a count of numbers employed in agriculture.

Even in 1851 it was regarded as of use to future generations although no one would have predicted its extensive use by family historians today.

We learnt that up until 1891 only male enumerators were employed and these had to be ‘temperate, orderly and respectable’.

Sometimes enumerators were scarcely numerate and it was common for mistakes to be made in totalling figures as well as recording names of people and places.

One survey has even shown that 68 per cent of recorded ages were wrong.

In the 19th century, people were unused to being documented, unlike today and often did not know such things as their place of birth.

The parish and the town were often confused and an honest answer to place of birth could result in someone on Parish Relief being sent back to their native village/town. Cartoons in Punch often made humorous references to the census.

Nowadays the census is usually transcribed for digitisation by people without local knowledge which can lead to some inaccurate and misleading transcriptions.

Prisoners and cheaper labour in other countries tend to be used. The 1881 census was transcribed by amateur genealogists and is more accurate.

Generally about 25 per cent of online entries are regarded as containing an error which can lead to many family historians going down the wrong track completely.

Some interesting facts were pointed out, such as the fact that tramps are listed separately at the end of the district, some people are recorded twice in two different households, pet animals are sometimes listed, and labels such as imbecile, lunatic and idiot have been officially used.

The 1911 census was the first where individual household schedules have been digitised making it possible to see our ancestors’ own handwriting.

Anthea gave us some useful tips for finding that illusive ancestor who seems to have escaped the notice of the enumerator.

If a word appears illegible, try writing it out as this can often lead to a realisation of what the word spells.

Less is more in the case of the census so always put in less information to obtain a long list of possible persons and work through it to narrow it down.

Providing too much information when searching online can result in no matches.

In the 19th century, most people were unused to hearing different regional accents so the words of a person originally from outside that area might be misinterpreted by the enumerator.

Do not confuse the number of the household with the house number. Often the latter is not listed, but if it is the number appears in the same column as the street name.

Always consider an entry in context and use common sense.

Make use of other tools such as trade directories, maps, and indexes, etc. Even Googling names can bring up some surprising and possibly helpful information.

This was a practical and very interesting talk by a knowledgeable speaker and many of us resolved to go home and start researching those missing ancestors.

Our next meeting will be on Saturday, January 18, 2014 when our Members’ Forum will discuss First World War ancestors. This will cover both those who served in the Armed Forces as well as those who remained at home. Everyone is welcome at this session at Bell View, Belford commencing 10am after coffee at 9.45am.