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Searching the 1851 Census

Arthur French


Getting the information out of the 1851 CD is more complicated than you might think.

Each parish was recorded in 1851 by a different "enumerator" in his own handwriting, using information spoken to him by the 'heads of households'. In that age, before compulsory education, people did not spell names as consistently as they do today. Perhaps they couldn't spell at all. Place-names could be muddled up. Hannah ADAMS in Dodbrooke (Kingsbridge), my wife's great-grandmother, said to the enumerator: "I was born in Christow." This was miles away up the Teign valley. The enumerator wrote: "Churchstow" (a parish next to Kingsbridge).

The 1851 manuscripts were typed into computers in the 1990's by people in the USA. This introduced a host of new mistakes. The old-fashioned handwriting is often ambiguous. Very little use seems to have been made of the transcripts made by the Devon FHS around 1990, and it's a pity that the proofs weren't checked by people with more local knowledge.

Even then, there would be difficult decisions to take. Do you preserve all the inconsistencies and mistakes made in 1851, if that makes it harder to search?

The 1851 CD, unlike the 1881 CD, searches for exact spellings, so even one letter different means that the name will be missed. But read 'How to Search in Folio Views', which enables you to search some variant spellings, if you can foresee them!


Let's start by looking at the parish of Torbryan. It's a small parish: 50 houses in 1851, 5 of them empty. The enumerator was William SOWTON, who farmed Torcourt, next to the parish church. I live in an adjoining parish, and I copied William's records in 1990, so I know the places and I have seen the original.

The official modern spelling is Torbryan, but Torbrian was often used, and William uses Torbrian throughout. However, other people, born in Torbryan but living elsewhere, use Torbryan (133), Tor Bryan (3), or Tor Brian (2). At least four searches are need to find them all, unless you use Torbr?an, and I still don't know if there are any other versions.

William spells Paignton 'Paington', which many did in those days. 'Newton Abbott' has 2 t's (and people are still inconsistent about that); and once it is just 'Newton', still a local habit. Doddiscombsleigh has lost one of its d's. Inwardleigh is also without the 'd'. Stoke Gabriel is 'Stock' Gabriel in one case. Belstone is there with and without the 'e'.

The first column in the original is headed: "Name of Street, Place, or Road, and Name or No. of House". William conscientiously filled all these in, but other enumerators often left blanks. (Some cottages didn't have names: it was just 'So-and-so's Cottage'.) The modern transcriber often assumed that the blank meant 'ditto', and copied the last used name. So, beware! You may get the name of a house several doors away.

In Torbryan, the transcriber has added the word Torbrian to the 'Name of ...', which has been re-labelled 'Address'. This makes sense in Torbryan. But, more often, the transcriber has added the name of the Registration District, so that all 'addresses' in Ipplepen (the next parish) are given as: '(House name), Newton Abbot', with no Ipplepen, which is very misleading!! Houses in Dartmouth are given a false 'address' in Totnes, miles away! This is a widespread problem to watch out for.

Birthplaces in the Towns

Mrs Sarah BULLY of Bradway Farm (Braway on the CD), Torbryan, was born at 'Mary Church'. This is sometimes written as one word, and sometimes with St. in front. Nowadays we could say that she was born in Torquay. The larger towns of Devon can have several parishes, and the parish may be given as the birthplace, with or without the town name. The other main parish in Torquay was Tormohun, also spelled Tormoham, or otherwise, or just Torre! Dartmouth has St Petrox, St Saviour, and Townstall.

The situation in Exeter and in Plymouth is even more complicated. Exeter has 12 parishes, or 14 if you include what are now the suburbs of Heavitree and St Thomas. There's also the Cathedral Close, so-called in the DFHS Index, but named on the CD St Martin & Close Precinct St Sidwell. St Sidwell also appears separately. Someone born in Exeter may just say Exeter, or may give the name of the parish, with or without the name of the city. St Mary Arches and St Mary Steps are sometimes given without St. (I suggest that a search on Arches or Steps will get fairly good results!) ... St Thomas is often St Thomas Apostle or St Thomas the Apostle.

Old Plymouth includes Charles the Martyr (but be prepared for Charles Martyr, or Plymouth Charles, etc.), St Andrew, East Stonehouse, and part of Stoke Damerel.

A further complication is that people away from home may be said to come from a town when they were actually born in a nearby village parish. My wife's greatgrandfather John ADAMS was hard to find on the Census because he was born in Sherford, lived in Dodbrooke, but was visiting a farm outside Brixham in 1851, and was allotted the 'birthplace' 'Kingsbridge'. In another case the family tradition said someone was 'from Brixham', but he was born in the adjoining rural parish, Churston Ferrers. The Census said Galmpton, which is a hamlet in Churston, and not a parish at all (a different problem to watch)!


Princetown is a special case. It has some 'parish' records from 1807, but was always in the parish of Lydford (in the Census, Lidford). The CD even includes Tavistock as a part of the 'Address'. You can find the Prison by searching on Prison as 'Head of House' and Lidford as Census Place. Prisoners are given by initials only, with age and birthplace. Some married staff have separate houses, so check 'neighbours', too.

Institutions like Prison, Hospital, Workhouse, often have those words as 'Head of Household', but beware! One prison has 'Prisons' (plural) in its title.

Modern complications

Searches are made even more complex by modern misprints. There are said to be no people living in Bishopsteignton, but 1,119 people live in the non-existent parish of Bishopsteighton. One letter wrong makes all the difference.

Back in Torbr?an, I noticed these horrors: Bnecklustley (Buckfastleigh), Harbuton, Chislaton (Charleton), Broadhempstead, Broadhampston, Woodcombe (Widecombe), and Myborough (Ugborough). Surnames include KENT for HEXT, FRELN for FIELD, K...IGHT for WAINWRIGHT, MATHELL for METHERELL, BANETARK for BUNCLARK ..... and many more!! It is certainly sometimes worth going through a whole parish, looking for possible misprints, if you have some reason to think your relative 'ought' to be there. Similarly, one can browse in the alphabetical index, but only if they've got the first letter right!

Postscript on 1881 Census

The 1881 CDs are a little easier to use because of the automatic search for similar sounding names, but many of the same problems apply. I thought it would be fun to look up some famous people and see what they were up to in 1881. The first I tried had three glaring misprints in his household: he was born in 'Walhanestron, Essex'; he had two daughters born in 'Bextly Heads, Kent'; and a servant from 'Isunton, Somerset'. If I tell you he lived in Hammersmith, you can find out for yourself (from the CDs) who he was. No prizes!

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June 2000

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