Content associated with: Population tables I, Vol. I. England and Wales. Divisions I-VII, 1851    Page clxiv

Marital status

Edward Higgs

The decennial censuses in Great Britain from 1801 to 1831 were organised by John Rickman, a clerk of the Houses of Parliament. Rickman was interested in collecting information on the numbers of families in the country, but he did not collect information on marital status within families. In 1841 the organisation of the census in Great Britain was taken over by the General Register Office (GRO) in London. From 1861 the census in Scotland was undertaken by a separate GRO in Edinburgh. The censuses from 1841 onwards were based on household schedules in which householders were to provide certain items of information about the inhabitants of their households. In the period up to and including the 1901 census the information so provided was copied into books by census enumerators for dispatch to London and Edinburgh. After that date, data abstraction was done directly from the householders' schedules (Higgs, 1989, 5–15).

The introduction of the household schedule in 1841 made it possible, in theory, to study marital status within families for the first time. However, in 1841 there was no marital status column in the census schedules. Enumerators were merely told to 'Set down one after the other those who have the same surname, beginning with the heads of the family, and put no others between them.' One might assume that a man and a woman with the same surname at the beginning of the household returns were a married couple, but they might also be siblings. From 1851 onwards there was always a 'Condition', or 'Condition as to Marriage' column in the household schedule.

In 1851 the householder was instructed to "Write 'Married', 'Widower', or 'Unmarried', against the names of all Persons except Young Children" in the column headed 'Condition'. The examples supplied to the enumerators showed the use of the abbreviations, 'Mar.', 'Widr.' and 'U.' for such marital conditions, the latter standing for 'Unmarried'. Over time the abbreviations changed, 'S' for 'Single' replacing 'U' in 1891, for example (Higgs, 1989, 121–6). The cut off point for the information also became more definite, at 15 and upwards in 1911, and 16 and upwards in 1931, and the term 'Divorced' was introduced (Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report, 258; Census of England and Wales, 1931, General report, 194).

The information given by householders on marital condition is usually self-explanatory but there may be some minor problems with it. Sometimes enumerators made clerical errors when copying the household schedules into their books, and the 'Condition' column was left blank, or a young child was described as married rather than its mother. However, more seriously, according to the 1881 Census report the number of wives in England and Wales exceeded the number of husbands by 61,064 (Census of England and Wales, 1881, 23). This might reflect the absence of spouses in the armed forces, or in the merchant marine, or cases where couples were separated but the wife alone still called herself married to remain respectable. Recent work on the 1911 census reveals that large numbers of married women living without a spouse were associated with high levels of female employment. Such women may have been separated from their husbands, but able to support themselves and their families on their own wages (Garrett, Reid, Schürer and Szreter, 66).

The GRO saw collecting information on marital status as part of its project for delineating the 'Law of Population'. The 1851 Census report defined this in the following terms: "The numbers, and consequently the increase or decrease, of people in a civilized country, depend upon the age of Marriage and the age of the parents when their children are born – the numbers who marry, the fertility of the Marriages — the duration of life — the activity of migration flowing into or out of the country". It further added: "A change in the matrimonial condition of a large proportion of the 120,403 unmarried women, out of the 290,209 women at the child-bearing age, would have an immediate effect on the numbers of the population; and, if continued, by increasing the rate of birth to the living through successive generations, would operate on population like a rise in the rate of interest on the increase of capital" (Census of Great Britain, 1851, Population Tables, 1851, Pt. I, xxxi). Some of the information required in this model of population growth could be derived from the census figures for marital status, but other elements need to be obtained from the civil system for the registration of births, marriages and deaths (which the GRO also administered), and from the special fertility survey in the 1911 census.

This concern with the dynamics of population plainly reflected the contemporary experience of rapid growth in population numbers, with the concomitant urbanisation and industrialisation that created so many social and public health problems. This explains why marital status was always a subject of interest in the various Census reports produced by the GRO, where it was usually combined with ages in the various tables they contained. The General reports included discussions and tables on the overall trends and patterns in the 'conjugal condition' of the population, whilst the local volumes, broken down variously in each census year by registration divisions or counties, gave more detail. In 1861, for example, there was a breakdown of the numbers of unmarried, married and widowed persons by sex and five year age groups, in counties and registration districts. In the 1901 county volumes there were similar tables, but for the county, aggregates of urban and rural districts, and for county boroughs.


Census of England and Wales, 1881, Vol. IV. General Report BPP 1883 LXXX.583. [View this document: England and Wales, Vol. IV. General report, 1881]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report with appendices BPP 1917–18 XXXV. [View this document: General report, England and Wales, 1911]

Eilidh Garrett, Alice Reid, Kevin Schürer and Simon Szreter, Changing Family Size in England and Wales: Place, Class and Demography 1891–1911 (Cambridge, 2001).

Census of England and Wales, 1931, General report (London: HMSO, 1950). [View this document: General report, 1931]

Census of Great Britain, 1851, Population tables, I. Number of the inhabitants in 1801, 1811, 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. Vol. I BPP 1852–53 LXXXV. [View this document: Population tables I, Vol. I. England and Wales. Divisions I-VII, 1851]