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Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Scottish Census of 1871

Teeming Towns and Crowded Cities : the Scottish Census of 1871

[This article first appeared in the now obsolete Discover My Past Scotland 2008]

By 1871, your urban Scottish ancestors could claim that they lived in one of the most thriving (or, alternatively, one of the most overcrowded) parts of the British Empire. The census, taken on the night of Sunday 2nd April 1871 showed that the population had grown considerably over the previous decade. The historian John McCaffery reports, for instance, that the town of Coatbridge had ‘a density as high as the city of New York.’ Of course, the general trend in Britain up to the 1870s was for larger families and there were some popular role models: Scots-loving monarch Queen Victoria, for instance, had had nine children. But the enormous family groups living in highly cramped conditions in some of Scotland’s cities were of another order altogether. As you discover your ancestors on the 1871 census, you may wonder at the reasons for such a swift and significant increase in numbers.

How can I access the 1871 census?

You can access the 1871 census for Scotland and search for your ancestors at the following websites. Some of these are free sites, at others you will have to pay to view the entries.

If you wish to view the original census enumerators’ books, you must visit the General Register Office (Scotland) New Register House, Edinburgh, EH1, 3YT.

1. Some Numbers

The 1871 census reported that the population of Scotland was 3,358,613 persons. Of these, 1,601,633 were males, and 1,756,980 were females; they lived in 742,694 separate families. These numbers represented an increase in population of approximately ten percent over the previous decade, and principal and large towns were growing at a rate of well over twenty percent.

A Part of the Whole

After the 1871 census, an effort was made to compile population statistics for the whole of the Britain. Scotland’s population went towards the United Kingdom’s impressive total of 31.6 million inhabitants.

2. A Booming Economy

One of the reasons for the increased population was the general rising prosperity of the country and the better opportunities for employment. The Scottish economy in the mid-Victorian era was based on heavy industry (iron and steel manufacture that also produced a range of engineering products). Exports went all over the world and it wouldn’t be long before Glasgow would become known as the ‘second city of the Empire.’ As the railway network spread throughout the country, a ‘continuous urban sprawl’ developed across the central belt.’ In this thriving economy, larger families meant more workers able to bring in more money. For more on the occupations of your Scots ancestor, visit

3. They Didn’t Want To Leave

Another reason for the larger population in 1871 was the fact that fewer people were emigrating. Life in the homeland was looking more attractive and, between 1861 and 1871, only 157,838 natives of Scotland emigrated from the ports of the United Kingdom to places such as Canada, America and Australia. This was nearly thirty thousand fewer people than had emigrated in the previous ten years.

4. They Came From Afar

Look carefully at the birthplaces of your family members on the census. Many people moved to the Scottish cities from Ireland. In addition, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen, Greenock and Ayr saw an influx of Jews from the Russian Empire and Lithuania. Few immigration records into Scotland exist before 1878 (when passenger lists are available). To trace their journeys to the UK, you may have to search the emigration lists from your ancestor’s point of departure. For more on records associated with Scottish emigration and immigration see:

5. Simply More Babies

Large families were, of course, a natural consequence of the lack of any foolproof methods of contraception in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Couples who wanted to limit their family size may have used the methods of abstinence, prolonged lactation (breastfeeding) and coitus interruptus (the withdrawal method). None of these, of course, provided certain protection against pregnancy. Condoms made from animal intestines had been available from at least the early eighteenth century and, after 1843, these were replaced with sheaths made from vulcanised rubber. There were also rubber cervical caps, syringes and soluble pessaries – but the majority of people probably didn’t use them. In tandem with poor contraception, certain improvements in public health – the building of wash houses and better provision of water supplies -  meant that fewer babies were dying in infancy than earlier in the century.

As a result of all these factors, families of more than ten children were commonplace in the 1871 Scottish census. The following points may help you understand just how and where your large family of ancestors actually lived.

6. One room or two?

The 1871 census (like its predecessor) asked about the number of rooms in dwelling places with one or more windows. This information can be helpful in giving you an idea of the spatial dimensions of your ancestor’s home. In cities like Edinburgh and Glasgow, there were two types of working-class housing; the ‘made down houses' - former middle class homes where each room might house an entire family - and traditional tenements, often without running water or sanitation. In 1871, a quarter of the population lived in single-ends (one room houses). These were tiny; in Edinburgh they measured on average 14 feet by 11.5 feet. In the Canongate, Tron, St Giles and Grassmarket areas of Edinburgh, up to 15 people could be found living in one room although the average was five. 38% of the population lived in a room and kitchen (two-room houses). In all, 54% of the population lived more than two to a room.

7. Boarders and Lodgers

You may find that on the 1871 census your ancestor is no longer in the family home but residing in one of the many lodging houses that sprang up in the poorer areas of the cities. Nineteenth-century lodgers were of many types.  The vast majority were young men who may have moved to the industrial centres from rural areas to take up seasonal work. They included railway workers, navvies and builders who were taking part in the great processes of Victorian city construction. Lodgers also increasingly came from the aspiring lower-middle and professional classes and included shop assistants, clerks, accountants, and trainee clerics. In addition, a fair number of females in trades such as dressmaking (sometimes a euphemism for prostitution) also lodged.

Example:  In 1871, thirty year old David Cameron was a street hawker who shared a lodging house in the Grassmarket area of Edinburgh with ten others plus the family of four who owned the lodging house. His fellow lodgers, who ranged in age from 19 to 55, were variously, other street hawkers, a labourer, a shoemaker, a porter, a tailoress, and a millworker and they came from Ireland, Dundee and other parts of Edinburgh.

One of the main and most obvious reasons for lodging was the fact that, in the absence of other forms of transport such as trams, buses and bicycles, people had to walk to work. Workers may have lodged on a weekly basis returning home at the weekends, or may have lodged seasonally, moving on when their contracts finished. Enumerators were encouraged to record only those lodgers who boarded (i.e. who had their meals provided) as part of the household. Those who made their own food (‘look[ed] to the supply of [their] own victuals’) were to be categorised as separate householders, even if they shared the same accommodation. Obviously, the potential for confusion on the census forms was enormous.

8. Out of the Slums

If your ancestor was very poor, don’t be surprised to find that he or she had moved to a different part of their home city between the 1861 and 1871 censuses.  By means of their own Improvement Acts, the two major Scottish cities had undertaken slum clearance programmes during that decade - Glasgow in 1866 and Edinburgh in 1867. Between 1867 and 1877, 30,000 people in Glasgow and 3,000 in Edinburgh were forced to ‘flit’ in this way. The official thinking behind this now seems outdated and unjust – it was felt that the respectable poor would succeed in finding better accommodation, whilst only those who were inadequate – and therefore undeserving - would end up in worse accommodation.

9. Vessels, Gaols, Barracks et al

If your ancestor was not at home on the night of April 2nd 1871, don’t despair – you might still find him or her on the census. Customs officers and (in the case of the Navy) the Admiralty were requested to collect information on the seamen on board vessels in Scottish harbours or waters. (NB: The men aboard Scottish vessels in foreign ports and at sea and others on Scottish vessels in English, Irish or colonial ports were not included). In gaols, military barracks, workhouses, hospitals and other public institutions where more than 135 people resided, the masters of the institution (rather than the ordinary census enumerators) were responsible for collecting information for the census.

10. An Emptying Countryside

Of course many areas of Scotland remained sparsely populated in 1871. Rural villages of between 2,000 and 3,000 inhabitants had increased at the low rate of only 1.32 % and in the truly outlying regions the population remained stationary or, in fact, decreased. To get an idea of exactly where your Scottish ancestors lived visit www.nls./uk/maps 

With such an increased population, the job of the Scottish census enumerators was getting more onerous. Their pay in 1871 for collecting information on up to 400 people was just one pound and one shilling – something of an improvement on previous years, but no great riches. There was, however, an unexpected bonus for those enumerators of the burgeoning inner cities. For every additional 100 people enumerated, they received an extra two shillings and sixpence!

Useful Websites - Tables of information relating to the 1871 Scottish census

www.nls./uk/maps  Maps of Scotland from 1560 onwards For information on where your Scottish ancestors may have worked.  Articles from the Scotsman newspaper from 1817-1950 including several on the 1871 census and its results. - a history of the Jews in Scotland.  Information on emigration and immigration out of and into Scotland.

Useful Books

McCaffrey, John, Scotland in the Nineteenth Century, Macmillan, 1998

Lindsay, Maurice, Victorian and Edwardian Glasgow, Batsford, 1987

Minto, Charles Sinclair, Victorian and Edwardian Edinburgh from Old Photographs, Batsford, 1989

Whately, Miskell, Louise, and MOR, Victorian Dundee: Image and Realities, Tuckwell, 2002

Keywords: European ancestors, genealogy, family history, Scotland, Scottish, census

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