English Census Records

Primary Source Records: The English Census

After completing your interviews of living relatives you will most likely be left with information regarding approximate BMD dates for ancestors who lived sometime during the Victorian era.  Hopefully you will also have clues as to specific Cornish or Devon locations for your Sambell/s ancestors.   In such cases your next best primary source of information is the English census records.  If your ancestors migrated to other global destinations after 1841 then you will only have the 1841 English census to consider as it is the first useful one to genealogists.

Decennial census (every 10 years) have been taken in Britain since 1801.  The first four censuses were only numerical and did not give the names of people living in a household.  However, for the first time the census of 1841 was taken on one particular night and included the name of the head of the household, his/her occupation as well as the name and age of the members of the family living at home. Included is the relationship to the head of the household for each person enumerated. This was also the first year that common census schedules were provided to each household to be filled in. However, due to widespread illiteracy neighbours or children of school age did the writing. The enumerators then copied out the entries into books as is.  These  were then submitted to the Superintendent Registrars.

The census records have been the single most important source of information for tracing my Sambells ancestors of the 1800’s.  For the genealogist the census records provide age and birthplace, for individuals at home on the night of the census taking. Parents birthplaces provide necessary clues as to the location of the previous generation and therefore help one to identify the likely parishes to search for earlier records.  Occupations are also included for working persons while school age children are listed as “scholars.”

It is important to record the information of your ancestors in each census available. In doing so one can trace changes in the family dynamic as children are added and others leave home and may be found working as servants or labourers at nearby farms. Comparative census analysis also helps to identify family movements, while change in occupations may signal an increase or decrease in the accumulation of wealth.

It should be noted that the census returns are only made available to the public after 100 years.  Since the information was supplied in confidence its disclosure is made only at a time when one would expect the head of the household would have died.

The census index for Cornwall England from 1841 to 1901 was completed in 2008 by the Cornwall Online census Project.  See “Viewing Record Indexes” for further explanation in accessing and using this online searchable index.

Accessing Online Record Indexes: The English Census Records 1841–1901

In 2000 the Free Census Project began the arduous task of transcribing all the UK 19th century census return in order to create an on line “free-to-view” searchable database.  The Cornwall Online Census Project (COCP) which was part of the FCP completed their work in 2008.  Cornwall census records from 1841 to 1901 can now be accessed at no cost from

From the menu bar click “Current Status” and select the census year you wish to view.  Then click the “Complete” option and you are presented with the list of records for each census district.  You will of course need to have some clues as to the geographic locations that your ancestors may have lived in order to reduce the number of different census books you want to view.

Once you have opened a file you can highlight “all” the text and complete a “find” for each of the various spellings of Sambell.  As you discover relevant entries you can record the household information.  I have found that the easiest way to collect and record data is to cut and paste the information you find into a word document.  Be sure to copy the enumeration district number; name of the civil parish; as well as the book number, folio number and page number where you find a person or family of interest.  Of course it is important to search for a variety of spellings as well.  Do not assume that by the 1800’s the surname spelling had been clearly established.  For example, I extracted all listings of my own Sambells ancestors of St. Germans from 1841 to 1901 but was puzzled that there was no reference to my great-grand father in 1851.   Many searches later I finally found “William Samlles”  working as a servant on a farm in a different parish. This was a totally different spelling than the surname list I had created up to this point.  It may be a tedious process but after several months of work I had a wonderful document of all Sambell/s families of the St Germans parish that appeared in the census from 1841 to 1901.  It would be wonderful if similar documents could be assembled for the occurrence of other Sambells in other parishes as well. That would provide researchers with the single best source for tracing Sambell/s ancestors of the Victorian era on the internet!

It is also important to understand that if you are searching in any document and find nothing you still have made a valuable discovery that is worth recording.  So make a list of what you have looked at and what sources you have found nothing.  It will save you much time in the future when you forget what you have done previously. 


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