Working Together


Cooperative efforts by thousands of Latter-day Saints and others have produced an index of the British 1881 census, thereby making an important record accessible and fostering many positive relationships.

On the night of Sunday, 3 April 1881, the entire population of England, Wales, and Scotland, as well as the inhabitants of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, paused for a collective portrait. This figurative snapshot in history was the government census of 1881. The resulting image preserved important informational features of each person. Until now, the search for one ancestral family by those compiling their family history from among the millions of people in the British 1881 census could be compared to the search for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Researchers who did not know the location of their ancestor in 1881 faced the virtually impossible task of spending years reading millions of names before happening upon the name of their ancestor. Researchers who were lucky enough to know the county where their ancestor lived still faced hours or days of searching. However, thanks to a recently completed indexing project, the name of a specific family member can be located in a matter of minutes.

Thousands of professionals and volunteers have worked for eight years to create the most comprehensive and detailed census index yet devised. The enormity of this task is obvious: vital statistics for some 26,300,000 residents in England, Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands are included in the census. When in January 1991 the Scottish Association of Family History Societies applied to have the 1881 census of Scotland included in this project, another estimated 3,700,000 people were added, bringing the total number of names to be indexed to approximately 30,000,000.

Because of the size and complexity of this census index, its success is a major genealogical achievement. In addition, it is a tribute to the cooperation of thousands of people on an international level. No other program has so prominently involved both Latter-day Saints and those of other faiths in a like cause on such a gigantic scale. The degree of cooperation between the Federation of Family History Societies, the Scottish Association of Family History Societies, and the Family History Department of the Church has been not only exemplary, but essential.

Getting Started

In 1987 the Family History Department acted upon its desire to initiate a cooperative indexing project of one of Britain’s nineteenth-century censuses. Elder Richard G. Scott, then of the Presidency of the Seventy and Executive Director of the Family History Department, met in London, England, with delegates of the British Genealogical Records Users Committee (BGRUC), an informal group composed of organizations committed to providing access to and preservation of genealogical and historical records.

All agreed that an index of the 1881 census would provide maximum benefit to family historians worldwide. Though no British census had been completely indexed, all had been partially indexed except the 1881 census. In addition, most British families can establish their ancestry back three or four generations using family records, so the 1881 census begins where many family records end.

The necessary licenses and agreements were procured from Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and the Public Record Office, the legal guardians of all British governmental records. In January 1991, when Scotland was included in the project, legal details were negotiated with the General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh.

Alison B. Horsburgh, departmental record officer in the General Register Office for Scotland in Edinburgh, commented: “The decision … to index the 1881 census records … was … incredibly ambitious … and has been welcomed throughout the historical and genealogical fraternity. … I don’t think one can overestimate the value of the new index in facilitating research using this record source.”

Transcription, Data Entry, and Indexing

Phase one of this project involved the transcription of the original census onto standardized forms. The Church provided photocopies of each page of the original census—a total of nearly seven tons of paper—to Richard A. Sowter, the project’s national family history society coordinator in Bristol, England. With the help of another Church member, Lynn Jackson, Richard divided, assigned, and distributed these photocopies among the local coordinators from ninety-eight family history societies and ten Latter-day Saint stakes who took charge of the transcription in their areas. Nearly ten thousand volunteers representing those of other faiths as well as Latter-day Saints worked together on this phase. The transcriptions were made separately by two people, carefully checked by a third person to ensure accuracy, and then sent to the Garretts Green Management Centre in London, England.

The second phase of this work required the careful checking of the transcriptions to ensure a high level of accuracy in the indexes. Family history service missionaries and local Latter-day Saints were trained to deal with the multitude of exceptions as well as the inevitability of human error that occurred when the original census was transcribed. This work of evaluation was very labor intensive and required patience and concentration.

The third phase of the project required that each census entry be input twice onto a computer using a Church-designed software program called Universal Data Entry (UDE). The transcribed sheets were again distributed to the ninety data entry centers. When accuracy was guaranteed, more than eleven thousand computer disks containing the data were shipped from the management center to the Family History Department in Salt Lake City.

Phase four of the project involved the actual indexing of the names on the 1881 census. When the Family History Department received the disks for one entire county, the data were loaded into the mainframe computer to be sorted and indexed. Nearly seventy full-time family history missionaries and employees managed this phase of the project. The final index, stored on laser-printed microfiche, was then made available to the public.

Speaking of the final product, Anthony J. Camp, director of the Society of Genealogists in England, said: “The laser printing is absolutely superb and was indeed worth waiting for. It is a pleasure to use and a great credit to all those who have worked so hard to produce it. I doubt that it would be bettered in any way. We express our thanks and gratitude again to all those involved in this marvelous project.”

J. M. Armstrong, editor of Family Tree Magazine, a well-known and respected monthly published in Cambridgeshire, summarized the feelings of most when he said, “Genealogists owe a deep debt of gratitude to the work and facilities so willingly shared by the LDS church.”

Richard Ratcliffe, a former chairman of the Federation of Family History Societies, is one of those already benefiting from the indexes. While working on the 1881 index of Gloucestershire, he located three families who had disappeared from the records after 1850. “Although they had only moved ten to twenty miles and that is not very far geographically,” says Mr. Ratcliffe, “it is a considerable distance when searching through reels of microfilm.”

Royal Recognition

As president of the Society of Genealogists, His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent spoke of the British 1881 Census Project in his speech at the society’s annual meeting on 29 June 1993. “The copying and indexing of the [census] returns for the whole of the country is a mammoth project,” he said. “We owe a great debt of gratitude to the many volunteers who have given so much of their time to the project.”

In addition, some enterprising workers at the data-entry center in South Shields wrote to the queen and told her of their work with the project. Not only did they receive a response from Buckingham Palace, but also a scheduled visit from her representative, Sir Ralph Carr-Ellison, Lord Lieutenant of Northumbria, on 22 July 1993. The twenty minutes originally set aside for the visit stretched into ninety due to the great interest expressed in the project.

Millions of Volunteered Hours

The cumulative labor of thousands ensured the success of this cooperative indexing project. The number of volunteered hours devoted since 1987 is estimated at two and a half million. The nearly nine thousand transcribers of other faiths were joined by another eight thousand Church members, including 264 full-time family history service missionaries from throughout the world. Completing the balance were British Latter-day Saints called by local priesthood leaders to fulfill part- and full-time missions within their own stakes and wards to perform evaluation and data entry responsibilities with the census project.

“During the forty-three months it took to assign the census out for transcription, I met hundreds of people,” said Richard A. Sowter. “It was so invigorating to me as these people accepted and actively took part.” This work is not only innovative, but it likely will remain unique in the genealogical community throughout the world.

The results of this cooperative effort is an index that opens the secrets of the 1881 census and makes it a living record, a snapshot allowing a personal glimpse of each life.

Fun and Fame in the British 1881 Census

Census takers called enumerators collected standard information about each person, such as name, age, marital status, address, and occupation. Boring? Far from it, as the following examples prove!

  • The wife, mother, and daughter of James Christmas were all named Mary Christmas

  • Frank Guest was listed as a visitor

  • The families of William Lovegrove, Henry Dearlove, and William Darling all lived on the same block in Oxfordshire

  • A woman named Rose married Robert Garden

  • Emma Boatwright married a seaman

  • Mr. Thorn lived in Rose Cottage

  • Robert Speed, a bus driver and post runner

  • Robert Robb, a detective officer

  • Phoebe Brain, a scholar

  • One woman’s birthplace was listed as “in stage coach between Nottingham and Derby”

  • John Pounder, a blacksmith

  • William Scales, a piano maker

  • Herman Hamberger, born in Greece

  • Curious occupations: dirt refiner, hoveller, moleskin saver, piano puncher, sparable cutter, spittle maker, tingle maker, and whim driver

  • Twin four-year-olds named Peter the Great and William the Conqueror

  • Brothers named Seaman and Landsman

  • The occupation of three daughters was entered as “They toil not, neither do they spin”

Testimonies of Those Who Serve

Elizabeth Walraven, Hereford Branch, Cheltenham England Stake: “I had a batch of records that was so black and the writing so bad that I could not even read it. I took it back to President Hoare and asked for another batch. I said that I could not do it. He told me to keep it and that I would be able to do it. So I did. I just took it back to my room and prayed to Heavenly Father. I asked him to help me, as I needed his help at that moment more than I had ever needed him. Then I just went to bed to sleep. Something woke me up and prompted me to go to the table and take a look at the records. When I did, I was able to do the fifty-four pages that I had not been able to read before. I finished the work in four hours. When I gave it to President Hoare, I told him I could not have done it without Heavenly Father’s help.”

John Austin, Plymouth Ward, Plymouth England Stake: “Little did I know [when I began] what adventures lay ahead! Many barriers have been removed between the general public and the Church as a result of working together on this project.”

Mabel McDowell, a missionary from the Liberty First Ward, Gridley California Stake: “Sometimes while entering family names on the computer, I feel so close to them. It seems strange to have tears in my eyes while at a computer, but they do come.”

Hazel Heslop, a missionary from the Hooper Third Ward, Hooper Utah Stake: “I know that I have received heavenly help and guidance in this work. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and realize that I made a mistake the day before. I am grateful that I will have time the next day to make the necessary changes. I know I have been prompted by the Holy Ghost.”

Ray Needham, Nottingham First Ward, Nottingham England Stake: “In December 1992 and January 1993, we had hoarfrost day after day. It was as thick as one inch on every blade of grass and resembled snow. One of our missionaries lived in a flat which was reached by a fire escape made of steel. This sister had artificial knees, and it was difficult for her to climb those steel steps. Yet, I believe that by the power of Almighty God those steel steps never froze. On either side was frost and ice, but those steps remained clear, throughout the winter.”

Laura Burgon, Stockport Ward, Manchester England Stake: “I have developed a great love and compassion for my forebears as a result of seeing the records of so many young mothers who died in childbirth, young men who died from disease while struggling hard to support their families, young children who worked in awful conditions for long hours, and aged couples who were separated when one had to go into the workhouse (poorhouse). I have a great feeling for what they suffered.”

One Index, Five Arrangements

In addition to creating a copy of the original census (in which residents are arranged in the order they were interviewed, or “enumerated”), census project workers rearranged information from the 1881 census in several ways.

Surname index: An alphabetical listing of all surnames within each county by surname, forename (given name), and age.

Birthplace index: An alphabetical listing of all surnames grouped by birthplace. Within this arrangement, individuals are listed alphabetically by forename and age.

Census place index: An alphabetical listing of all surnames grouped by census place (residence on 3 April 1881). Within this arrangement, individuals are listed alphabetically by forename and age.

List of vessels or ships: An alphabetical listing of all vessels or ships. Within this arrangement, individuals are listed alphabetically by surname, forename, and age.

List of institutions: An alphabetical listing of all schools, jails, hotels, orphanages, barracks, and so on. Within this arrangement, individuals are listed alphabetically by surname, forename, and age.

[photo] Photo by Geoff Baxter

[photo] In the Leicester Evaluation Centre, located in the Leicester chapel, local Latter-day Saints and family history missionaries from the United States worked side by side evaluating the accuracy of census transcription. (Photo by Geoff Baxter.)

[photo] Sister Gene Lanouette worked at a computer in the Garretts Green Management Centre, which served as the main office for the 1881 census project. (Photo by Geoff Baxter.)

Stephen C. Young, production coordinator in the United Kingdom for the British 1881 Census Project, serves as second counselor in the Solihull Ward, Coventry England Stake.