I'm researching the history of my house, so technically not genealogical, but it still involves sifting through censuses.

The first census (UK census) on which the property appears is from 1881. At this time there's some speculation that the house was still being built as it's un-numbered/un-named, and referred to simply as "concrete house".

The house is occupied by a family: a couple and their six children. The entry in the father's Relationship column is noted as being "Head Visitor", which would imply the family is visiting the house. However, no other entries for the house appear in the census - i.e. there's no entry for a family who might own the house. (And the house really isn't big enough for two families, or much more than a couple and their 6 children.)

Importantly, the father's occupation is listed as Master Builder.

I know from a record from 2 years later - from 1883 - the house has a name, and is occupied by more prestigious owners (a semi-aristocratic, high-ranking soldier and his family).

My question is this: Is it likely that the builder and his family in fact lived in the house full-time, rather than merely being "visitors", but only until the building was completed? If so, is this something that was common and would often show up on census records? And if so, what would be the protocol for the officials recording such census details? (i.e. Where is the line between tenant and visitor?)

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    Hi Richard, Have you had the chance to look at the original census image, or are you using a transcription (like FamilySearch)? I believe I have located the census record you refer to, but in the relationship column a word is crossed out and Head is written in its place. I'm not convinced that the word crossed out was Visitor, but the page is very hard to read. I'm also wondering how you know that the house called simply "Concrete House" is in fact your house?
    – Harry V.
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 19:20
  • I'm afraid I'm using a transcription - possibly a beginner's mistake. (I've learned my lesson!) With regards to how I know it's the same house... I can't say with 100% certainty, but I've reached the point (possibly erroneously) where I'm certain enough to continue with this line of investigation. Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 21:04
  • The house stood alone on this part of the road for 30 or so years before the next house was built. On later censuses it always stands out from other houses further down the road (it's bigger, and has a name). It's also on a parish boundary, so it's usually at/near the end of the list of houses on the road. Concrete houses were rare in the area at the time, but we're next to a cement works which I believe had started making suitable blocks for construction at about this time. There are still only one or two others in the area (perhaps the idea didn't take off... ). Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 21:06
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    One of the reasons why I asked what I did was because I took at look at the baptism records for that parish, and noted that the couple were having children baptised there later in the 1880s, and the address recorded on those baptisms was the same road as where "Concrete House" was situated (though the house was not specifically named on the baptism records). They could, of course, have moved to a different house on the same road, but it just made me wonder whether Concrete House might be a red herring.
    – Harry V.
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 21:33
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    Added another resource to my answer: Electoral rolls at Find My Past: search.findmypast.co.uk/search-world-Records/…
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Oct 7, 2015 at 1:37

1 Answer 1


At any given waypoint in your house's history, you have two possibilities for research --

  1. Researching the families that you believe inhabited the house and
  2. Researching the owners of the property and house itself by means of property records, and other information relevant to the property that might not include the names of residents

Resources for interpreting the 1881 Census itself follows, but don't neglect other record sets such as tax records (for studying owners and the property) or school records (for tracing families between the census years). Find My Past has recently added the National Probate Calendar (see Probate Calendars Of England & Wales 1858-1959) and (unlike the versions on Ancestry.co.uk or Gov.UK), their database has full text search, allowing you to search on a named house or place.

1881 Census resources

Making the most out of any single record set depends on understanding the nature of the records you're looking at. As you've discovered, this is also a multi-part problem because most of us are accessing the records by means of someone else's transcriptions and/or computer-generated indexes.

One of my go-to sites for enumerator's instructions is the University of Minnesota's IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) developed by the Minnesota Population Center. Via the International area of the site, I discovered the I-CeM (Integrated Census Microdata) Project conducted by the University of Essex's History Department.

About the project, the Introduction says:

The Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM) project was a three-year programme which has produced a standardised, integrated dataset of most of the censuses of Great Britain for the period 1851 to 19111.

By making available to academic researchers the detailed information about everyone resident in this country collected at each decennial census from 1851 to 1911, the I-CeM project has transformed the research landscape for work in the economic, social, and demographic history of this country during a period of profound change in the wake of the industrial revolution.

As individual family or house researchers, we may not be able to gain access to the data itself via the UK Data Service Center, but we can learn a lot about the census and how it was taken from the publications produced by the project team and by other researchers who have examined this data. Some examples include:

Woollard, Matthew, "'Shooting the nets': a note on the reliability of the 1881 census enumerators’ books", Local Population Studies, 59 (1997), pp 54-7.

  • Chapter 8 of the Handbook of International Historical Microdata "Microdata from the 1851 and 1881 Censuses", written by Woodard, discusses the creation of that part of the dataset, including problems with taking the original census, and with its translation to machine-readable form by the GSU (Genealogical Society of Utah). For example, page 9 of the PDF, which is page 115 of the original handbook, has Table 8-3 which compares the population in the dataset itself, compared with the numbers that were originally published in the summary reports. (If the two numbers don't match, then either the original report writers did their sums wrong, or some of the original schedules / enumeration books were wrong or went missing -- or both of those things are true. Don't expect 100% coverage or 100% accuracy.)
  • More information about the project data is revealed in the introductory user guide written by Matthew Woodard with Mark Allen. Check the guide for a discussion of houses under construction while the census was being taken.

GENUKI's page England and Wales: Census kindly provided the link to Guy Etchells' transcription of the Enumerators Instructions: 1881 Enumerators Instructions.

Histpop.org has some of the historical published reports on the 1881 Census.

Introductory Guides to the Census can also be found here:

For clues to building ownership, also check the British Newspaper Archive for area newspapers. Clues to the property turning over can be found in sale advertisements -- I've also found lists of local property transactions in newspapers.

Historical maps are also an important resource. For a good example of how you can put all the different kinds of information together, see Tony Proctor's "Where is Bendigo's Ring?", posted on his blog Parallax View on 15 November 2013.

Thanks to a pointer during the #AncestryHour chat on Twitter this morning, I was alerted to the collection of England & Wales, Electoral Registers 1832-1932 on FindMyPast.co.uk. These can be searched by place name and by house name with a keyword search, so if registers for your area are in the collection, this might be another source of information about who owned your house. For my main research area (Slapton near Kingsbridge in Devon), the people who do not live in named houses have entries marked "Slapton" which seems to be the equivalent of the census description "Slapton Village".

  • 1
    Brilliant. Thank you. Just when I thought I was starting to get good at this, I realise I actually haven't much of clue about what I'm doing :) I think perhaps my original question no longer stands, and that it's likely the family listed on the census were in fact the owners/tenants. Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 12:06
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    Richard, I think we ALL feel that way -- if we don't, we aren't learning anything. ;) Apologies for the way the answer rambles about -- I was trying to finish up before taking a webinar yesterday afternoon and didn't have time to restructure. Very pleased to see a question regarding house history here.
    – Jan Murphy
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 15:20

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