Getting the Most from Census Data

Rhona Dick
first published in MicroScope Data Handling Special 1997

Databases and history

Copies of census return forms more than 100 years old are available, usually in libraries. While they make fascinating reading for historians they can be a real turn off for children. The spidery writing can be almost indecipherable, and time also takes its toll on the legibility of the forms. A computerised database can help, but there is no doubt that constructing it is very time consuming. It is important to be clear at the outset about the purpose of the census work and the type of questions that can be asked of the data. Lez Smart details his use of census material in "Computer data handling in the primary school" (1). He particularly recommends the use of contemporary maps.

This article presents some sets of questions and activities which have been developed for use with the Greenfield Road Census File (for availability see bottom of page). However, most of the questions and activities could easily be adapted to any census data.

What might you hope to find?

Census forms are a great source of information, but you must remember that the information contained is only as reliable as the informants or the enumerator. You must be certain that your class understands the nature of a census. It is only a snapshot of one particular night taken every ten years. An understanding of the way in which the data was gathered helps children to interpret some of the inconsistencies. For example: Why are there different spellings of some names? (There is a family recorded as Perry in one year and as Parry in another year.) Why are there inconsistencies of age? Why has one man's age increased by about 15 years in successive census forms? (His wife's too.) Is Robert Davey really still working as a gardener at the age of 87? Incidentally there are variants of his name too. Why was J Clement's mother-in-law also called Clement?

You may be able to make suppositions. For example, children recorded on one form but not on the next may have died, but equally they may be staying with relatives for one reason or another. You must also bear in mind that values have changed, and what is quite acceptable now may have been very shameful one hundred years ago, and for this reason informants may have lied to the enumerator.

Some activities using census data

Although these activities were designed to be used with the Greenfield Road census data many of them can be used with any census file. You may find that not all of these searches will be valid, depending upon the piece of software available to you. There are about 850 records on the Greenfield Road data file, and so you may wish to subdivide it into several smaller files, to concentrate only on specific dates, for example. It will certainly be beneficial to have a print out of the data; many interesting facts, or relationships come to light only when seen in conjunction with others which may not be highlighted by computer searches. After all a computer does not say "I wonder why...?" or "I wonder if...?" The computer provides you with statistical data, but history is more than that. Look at copies of the original forms if you can. Try to imagine the reality of the scene.

It is also worth considering what questions cannot be answered with ease. (What is the commonest name? Who was born abroad? to name but two.) Is there a way that the database could have been structured to allow for questions such as these? This does highlight the need to know the information you are looking for before you set up the database.

The following activities fall broadly into two categories, those which are principally IT based and those which, in addition, support history teaching.


Simple sort activities

Who is the oldest person? Which household has the most people in it?

Who is the youngest person? Whose name would come last?


Simple search activities

Is your first name on the census returns? What about your surname?

How many people were called Bramich? Who lived alone?

Where was the school? How many people worked with metal?

Who was the farmer? Who was the screw nicker?

Who worked with stone? Who lit lamps?

Which houses were empty? How many professionals were there?

How many clerical workers were there? How old were the governesses?

How many people were lodging in G. Road? How many people were visiting G. Road?

Who had grandchildren sharing their house? How many servants were nurses?


More complex tasks involving searching and/or sorting two or more fields

How many adult (over 21) males were there ? How many adult women were there ?

How many females lived in G. Road in 1871? Which was the largest household in 1871?

How many children lived in G. Road in 1851? How many boys were there in 1881?

How many girls were there in 1861? How many babies (<1) were there in 1871?

How many agricultural workers in 1861? How many clerical/office workers in 1881?

How many servants in each census? How many agricultural workers in each census?

How many agricultural workers were women? What were occupations of skilled female workers?

Which man in trade was 36 years old? Where was the oldest employee born?

Who was the youngest person born in Scotland? What were occupations of female manual workers?

How many professionals were born in Staffs? How many males were born in London?

Occupation of the youngest working female? Occupation of the youngest working male?

Occupation of the oldest working female? Were there any male teachers?

Were there any female professionals? Who had a parent living with them?

How many people who were not working and were not scholars had an "occupation"?

Which agricultural worker was born in Northfield in about 1867 ?

What was the occupation of the man called William born in Worcester?

How many of the people on the 1841 census were born in the 18th Century?

Which servant lived in Greenfield Road for more than ten years?

The following searches may throw up points worthy of discussion which cast more light on life in Victorian times.

How many women were heads of households? How many of these women were married?

Who was the youngest servant born in Harborne? How many adult males were not working?


Using data to support hypotheses

The information contained in data files can help formulate, support or refute hypotheses. A word of warning, however, do not try to read too much into the data available here. There are not enough records to be statistically significant, although the evidence may suggest trends, or support information from other sources.


Which of the following statements may be true
(based on the evidence in the files)?

Women live longer than men.

Married men live longer than single men.

There were no one parent families in Victorian times.

There was no official retirement age in Victorian times.

Families were larger in Victorian times.

Children left school at a younger age in Victorian times.

Population grew rapidly in the second half of the century.

There was street lighting in the last century.

The West Midlands became increasingly industrialised during the last century.

Jewellery work and gun making were important industries in Birmingham.

More families had servants in Victorian Harborne than now.

Richer families lived in higher numbered properties in Greenfield Road in 1881.

More people moved to Harborne from other parts of the country towards the end of the century.

(Use a map of Britain to plot the birthplaces of the inhabitants of Greenfield Road).

Benjamin Rose was married twice and died in the 1860s.

Alfred Johnstone was married twice.

The Dawkins, Coleman and Reece families moved frequently.

These statements should provide plenty of scope for discussion!


Detective Work

Turn your children into detectives by setting up a spurious company in this case Greenfield Genealogists a company which aims to supply information about inhabitants of Greenfield Road in answer to requests.

Another idea would be to produce record cards with some parts obliterated. Ask your children to create new record cards filling in the missing gaps from the information on the database.



Smart Lez : Databases, History and Young Historians in J Lodge ed., Computer Data Handling in the Primary School David Fulton Publishers Ltd. 1992


View the Greenfield Road Census File

Download the Greenfield Road Census File as a CSV file (85K) or as a Zipped CSV file (13K)

Go to the Greenfield Road activity in Classroom Activities.

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