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In 1377 a poll-tax census was taken, when it was found that, exclusive of children under 14 and mendicants, the entire population of Cornwall did not exceed 34,960 persons. (Polsue).
Census information was collected in Cornwall every ten years starting in 1801, except for 1941 when the Country was at war. The original purpose of the census was to provide population statistics. However, the 1841 Census was the first meaningful one to help family history researchers because this is the earliest to list personal names nationally. Between 1801 and 1841 there were occasions when names were recorded at the parish level but these were few and far between.
From 1841 onwards the records show the names of each person at the address at which he or she spent the night of the census date. Returns become available for public inspection on the first working day of the year following the year in which they become one hundred years old. Researchers should be aware that there is much evidence to suggest that people did not always state their ages correctly.
1841 Census Peculiarities. Parishes of birth were not recorded in the 1841 Census, although an indication 'Y' or 'N' was given as to whether they were born within the county. For those under the age of 14 the exact age is normally given, but the ages of those aged 15 or more are generally (but not always) rounded down to the nearest 5 years below - so someone who stated he was 19 would have been recorded as 15. From the 1851 census the information is more meaningful. The following information was published in The West Briton Newspaper on 7th May 1841:
HINTS RESPECTING THE NEW CENSUS, to be taken on Monday, the 7th of June, 1841.
1. The best mode of taking a census is by a map and a register. On the map, the situation of houses only should be marked. Every house should be numbered, and then a register of every inmate made. The commissioners have adopted the plan of a register, and arranged an expensive machinery for taking it, but the form is very imperfect. It is to be written in pencil.
Ages above 15 are to be entered thus - at 29, put 25, if 34, put 30, and so on. If a person has two Christian names, only one is to be inserted. The county where born is to be recorded, but not the parish, which the Act also requires. Such a register will be of little use. At the same cost one might be taken which would ensure an accurate census, and might be useful for many purposes in a parish till the decennial enumeration of 1851. A register of this kind was prepared in 1831 for a large parish in this county, and has been of great service ever since.
2. The attention of the commissioners should be directed to the whole of the United Kingdom, including the Norman Isles. This is rarely the case in our statistical documents. France, though larger, always appears entire, whilst the British and Norman Isles are generally arranged in separate and detached parts.
3. Cornishmen should especially look to the area covered by 1. the county; 2. the archdeaconry; 3. the parliamentary districts; and 4, the poor law unions. This surface contains 209 entire parishes, of which 201 belong alike to each of these four general divisions. The remaining eight parishes on the line of the Tamar from north to south are 1. Bridgerule, 2. North Tamerton, 3. Boyton; 4. North Petherwin; 5. Werrington; 6. St. Giles in the Heath; 7. St. Budeaux; and 8, Maker. From want of attention to these eight parishes, it frequently happens that the description and statistics of all the four general divisions of Cornwall are inaccurately given. This provincial geography should be taught in our schools.
4. In the last official census of 1831 for Cornwall, there are the following errors and defects: - 1. the Cornish part of St. Budeaux is not noticed; 2. the parishes of Cuby and St. James, Tregony, are not distinguished; 3, the population of Landrake and St. Erney is not severed; 4. the proportion of Laneast in the hundred of East, and Lesnewth is not given; 5. there is a duplicate entry of 474 for the Lanlivery part of Lostwithiel Borough; 6. the population of the parishes of Creed and Probus cannot be ascertained, because the proportion of each in Grampound is not given; 7. the population of the hamlet of Trewarlet, near Launceston, is not shown, though it changes its parish every year. In the forthcoming census care should be taken to rectify these inaccuracies.
5. Inhabited rocks and small extra-parochial places are frequently overlooked, such as St. Nicholas Island, the Eddystone, Looe Island, the Longships, Launceston Castle, & c.
6. No provision seems to be made for ascertaining the population of small towns, such as Polperro, Bude, Boscastle, Porthleaven, and Wadebridge; nor of larger ones not having a municipal or parliamentary franchise, such as Redruth, Camborne, St. Austell, etc.
7. Greater attention should also be paid to the area of towns, by showing within what space the population is congregated. Take for instance the towns of Launceston, Liskeard, and Bodmin. From the last census you cannot discover which town had the denser population; we believe that at Launceston more persons were then living within a square mile than at either Bodmin or Liskeard. But the public documents do not show this, as the fact as to Launceston must be gathered from the retun of three parishes. These circumstances might be shewn on a statistical map, which the government or the literary societies in each county should prepare to accompany and elucidate the census of the 7th of June.
May 4, 1841
1841 and 1851 Census - Collection of Data. In the censuses up to 1851, census information was collected at parish level within the Hundreds. From 1851, the information was collected at parish level within Registration Districts which had been established in 1837. (See also under Civil Registration in Cornwall).
Ecclesiastical Census of 1851. In 1851, in addition to the census of population, an additional census was taken of places of worship. Although this was purely voluntary, most places of worship made returns. The returns for England and Wales are now among the Home Office records in The National Archives (HO 129).
Clergy completing the returns were asked to discover 'how far the means of Religious Instruction provided in Great Britain during the last fifty years have kept pace with the population during the same period, and to what extent those means are adequate to meet the spiritual wants of the increased population of 1851'.
Merchant Shipping in 1861. In the 1861 census, Merchant Shipping was treated peculiarly, under Shipping Returns. Shipping returns for Cornwall and its border are as follows:
National Censuses. The dates of Censuses in England and Wales are:
Other Available Census Information:
- The availability and whereabouts of census information for the parishes of Cornwall are given on each Towns and Parishes page, under the sub-title 'CENSUS'.
- Census information in the UK is increasingly being transcribed onto Internet websites by the Free Census Project, which is searchable.
- The Cornwall Online Census Project has transcribed the censuses of Cornwall 1841 to 1891; this, too, is searchable.
- There is also a free Cornish On-line Census search facility available which may help.
- A statistical analysis of the Cornish censuses (1801 to 1991) by the Public Records Office, may be available from the National Archives.