At any given waypoint in your house's history, you have two possibilities for research --
- Researching the families that you believe inhabited the house and
- 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".