Associated Content

People on Boats

Edward Higgs

Members of the merchant marine and those involved in inland navigation created a problem for the officers taking the census, and thus for those who wish to use the results of the decennial enumerations. In the period 1801 to 1831, a clerk of the House of Commons, John Rickman, sent the overseers of the poor in each parish in England and Wales, or 'other substantial householders', a form on which they were to indicate the number of men and women in their parishes, along with the numbers employed in various economic categories. In Scotland the task fell on the local schoolmaster (Higgs, 1989, 4–7). But it is unclear how Rickman intended overseers to deal with people temporarily present in the parish, such as those on board ships in ports, or on barges on rivers and canals. Nor do we know how they dealt, in practice, with merchant seamen, fishermen, or bargees, who were temporarily absent.

On Rickman's death in 1840, responsibility for taking the British census passed to the General Register Office (GRO) in London. The GRO had been set up in the wake of the Registration and Marriages Acts of 1836, and the Registrar General appointed as head of the national system of civil registration in England and Wales. England and Wales were divided up into registration districts, based upon the Poor Law unions, and a superintendent registrar appointed for each. These areas were further subdivided into sub-districts and part-time registrars appointed to them. These officers were responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths within their sub-districts, and the forwarding of these data to the GRO in London (Higgs, 2004, 1–21). All that was necessary to turn this into an administrative system for the census, was for the registrars to divide their sub-districts into smaller enumeration districts and to appoint temporary enumerators for each. These collected the necessary data by giving householders schedules on which they entered the details on the inmates of their households on Census Night. Prior to 1911, the enumerators copied these returns into enumeration books that would be sent via the registrar and superintendent to the GRO for central analysis and the publication of results in the same manner as data on vital statistics. From 1911 onwards they sent the original household schedules to London.

The post-1831 system was based, therefore, on the assumption that people lived in households, and that a de facto (See De jure/de facto for further details). enumeration of the population made sense. But what happened if, as in the case of merchant seamen, fishermen or bargees — on board ship — people were not in households, or quite frequently absent from their place of residence, or that of their families? In order to enumerate these people the GRO developed an extra-ordinarily complex set of procedures, which were different for the various groups of persons aboard ships.

Throughout the period 1841 to 1931 the crew and passengers of merchant vessels on shore on census night were treated like other land dwellers and enumerated in the household returns. The enumeration of the crews and passengers of merchant ships who were on board on Census Night was far more complex. In 1841 no attempt appears to have been made to make a complete enumeration of this population. Instead the GRO asked the General Register and Record Office of Seamen to provide the number of seamen's names on its register on 6 June 1841, after deducting those reported dead. Only a global figure for the total number of merchant seamen was given in the 1841 Census Report (Abstract of the answers and returns … Occupation Abstract, 1841, 297). This inevitably caused problems for the registrars of births, marriages and deaths in ports. The populations of their districts were calculated on the basis of the population on shore, but those registered as dying in the districts were drawn from this population plus those on board ship in harbour. This meant that calculations of deaths per thousand population, the most vital nineteenth-century sanitary statistic, were inflated. This was extremely serious given the Victorian concern over the health of ports.

From 1851 onwards some attempt was made to capture the population of vessels in harbours and those that arrived in ports within a certain period of time after Census Night. The complexity of this system can be grasped by looking at the 1851 arrangements in some detail. The sea-going population to be enumerated in 1851 was made up of three groups: a) those who slept on board of vessels in harbour on 30 March 1851 (Census Night); b) those who were at sea in vessels engaged in the home trade on that night (all vessels trading or sailing within the limits of the coasts of the United Kingdom, Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Alderney, the Isle of Man, and of Europe from the Elbe to Brest); c) those who were absent from the United Kingdom in ships normally sailing to and from other foreign parts.

The third group was not supposed to be fully enumerated, a headcount being undertaken via the General Register of Seamen. The first and second groups were to be enumerated by the customs officers (Higgs, 1989, 41–42).

The ships in harbours on census night were subdivided into two groups: (i) ships of foreign nations; (ii) British ships in the home or foreign trade.

In the case of foreign vessels, the name and nation of the vessels and the number and sex of persons on board, were returned by the customs officers, distinguishing foreign from British subjects. In order to enumerate persons aboard British vessels in the home trade, a special ship's schedule was produced. On 15 March 1851 the customs officers gave a ship's schedule to the master of every British ship in port. They also gave one to the master of every British ship that arrived at the port from that day until Census Day, 30 March. Early in the morning of 31 March, the customs officers collected the returns filled up by the masters of the ships in port on that day. From the surviving accounts it is not clear if this included British vessels engaged in foreign trade, as well as those in the home trade. Ships engaged in the home trade and which were at sea on census night were supplied, either before their departure or on their return, with ships' schedules, which were collected as the ships arrived in British ports from 31 March to the last day of April. On the last day of April the ships' schedules collected were sent direct to the Census Office in London (Higgs, 1989, 41–2).

This process was plainly very complex, and it is not clear that it was fully understood by the customs officers who were supposed to carry it out. In subsequent census years the system worked in a broadly similar manner, with the periods during which schedules were to be handed out, and the range of ships to which they were to be handed, changing somewhat over time. In 1871, for example, foreign vessels in port on Census Night were properly enumerated for the first time. In the years 1851 to 1881, the period during which schedules were handed to cres of vessels differed for fishing vessels, although they appear to have been treated the same as the rest of the merchant marine from 1891 onwards (Higgs, 1989, 42–4).

The people recorded on such ships' schedules appear either to have been added to the population of the ports they landed in, or to that of the nearest community if they were anchored at sea on Census Night. This created strange anomalies in the population totals given in the Census Reports for some coastal parishes. In 1911, the Registrar General commented in a memorandum on the census of that year, that 'for many reasons it appears undesirable to include (the shipping population) in the age, occupation and birthplace tables (of the published census)'. It is uncertain how the merchant marine was treated in other years, and the practice of adding its members to the population of the nearest parish only seems to have been abandoned in 1931 (Burton, 1987, 40).

In the case of barges, and of the boats on rivers and canals, those that came into the ports and harbours were treated by customs officers in the same manner as fishing vessels. The only exception to this was in 1851, when the customs officers merely forwarded to London the vessel's name, description and port where it was returned, as well as the number of males and females on board (Higgs, 1989, 44). Vessels on canals and rivers were treated in a rather different manner. No attempt appears to have been made to take a nominal census of these vessels in 1841 and 1851. Enumerators were merely asked to calculate the numbers of males and females on such vessels and insert this figure in one of the preliminary tables in their enumerators' books. In 1841 application was also made to the canal companies to provide an estimate of the number of such people. From 1861 onwards some attempt was made to enumerate this floating population. In that year, the local registrar was to enumerate vessels within his sub-district 'according to the circumstances of each case'. He was advised to find where such vessels might be moored from the owners or managers of wharves, or the canal companies, and then to employ a 'trustworthy person' to visit them on census morning. The necessary information was obtained using the standard ship's schedule of that year. From 1871 onwards it became the responsibility of the enumerators to enumerate such vessels. The information on the people so enumerated was included in the published totals for the parishes and communities in which the vessels were found on Census Night (Higgs, 1989, 44–5).

Care must be taken, therefore, in attempting to interpret the figures relating to the floating population in the published Census Reports. Which members of this population were supposed to be enumerated changed over time, as does their treatment in the published returns. Nor can we always be sure that those who were responsible for the enumeration of this population actually understood what they were supposed to do.


Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain", and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an Account of the Population". Occupation abstract, 1841. Part I. England and Wales and Islands in the British Seas, BPP 1844 XXVII (587). [View this document: Occupation abstract, England and Wales, 1841]

V. C. Burton, 'A floating population: vessel enumeration returns in censuses, 1851–1921', Local Population Studies, 38 (1987), 36–43.

Edward Higgs, Making sense of the census. The manuscript returns for England and Wales, 1801–1901 (London, 1989).