Techniques to Read Difficult Writing in a Census

Styles of handwriting and standards of spelling have changed over time. Do not expect to always find names, especially surnames, spelt the same as they are now. The italic handwriting common in the 19th century may also be hard to read, especially with earlier census returns. You may be able to purchase guides to help you understand the problems faced, on The Parish Chest web-site.

What follows gives you a few examples of the difficulties you may encounter.

If only all handwriting in a census was as easy to read as this…

Mostly, it isn’t.

Let’s make a start with the misleading “fs” – the “long s”

By the mid 1800s, the old way of writing a double “s” had virtually died out, but some people, especially older folks continued to use it. A double “s” was normally written as what looks like “fs”. Therefore “dress maker” looks like “drefs maker”, and “mistress” looks like “mistrefs”.

So here is the school mistress, and below, the dress maker. Note how, in the example below, the lower tail of the “long s” appears to have become a part of the upper case S of the word “Scholar”.

Start to look at the way that letters were formed in a particular person’s handwriting.
This is the main clue to deciphering handwriting.

Look again at the example above. There is much that we can learn from it!

Line 2: The word “Maker”.
Is that first letter an M? Note the way that the upper case letter M in “Mar” in the line above is formed. In context, that entry can only be “Mar” (short for Married). Therefore, yes, the word is “Maker” !

What we have done here is to use a known recognisable word to help decipher a difficult one.
That is the technique we use to read awkward words in handwriting! Even if it means looking at other adjacent pages to find that same letter shape, do it!

Another example in line 2: the word “Dress”…. hmm… pretty obvious once it is pointed out. But that first letter, an uppercase D is really not that clear. Is there a known word on the same page that has the same letter shape? Sure, “Daur” (short for Daughter). Therefore that letter must be an upper case D.

Also note the unusual way that the enumerator writes his upper case “W” in “Wife”; the way that he writes an upper case “S “in “Son” and “Scholar”; and the strange way he writes an upper case “A” and a lower case “g” in “Ag Lab” (short for Agricultural Labourer).

The Farmer and the Farmer’s Son

Let’s start with the occupation on line 3. Yes, we have already encountered the “Ag Lab” – the agricultural labourer. Despite the different (and poor) handwriting, we now know what it is. But what is the rest of the line? It is “on the farm”. But note the very strange way that the upper case “F” in “Farm” is written. But how did we know that the word was “on”? It sure doesn’t look like it! But look in the left hand column at the word “Son”. That word can only be “Son”, and what we have done is use part of a known word to confirm a difficult one.

Now let’s look at those farmers. There are two of them. We have already learned to recognise the way that this enumerator writes his upper case “F”. But what are those other words? They come with experience, as almost always a farmer’s occupation is stated as “Farmer of XX acres” or “Farmer of XX acres employing X men”.

The second one is easy: “Farmer of 35 Acres”. The first one is not so easy. How many acres? 56 or 54? I’m not going to tell you. But look at the ages of the people shown, one of which is clearly “56”.

Finally, the occupation on the last entry here. Yes, the first word is “Farmers”, and the second awkward word can be seen at four other places on the page!

What we have done here is to use a known recognisable word to help decipher a difficult one.
That is the technique we use to read awkward words in handwriting!

Get the message?

Before we leave this example, the occupations on this sample are:

  • House Maid
  • Copper Miner (mis-spelled “Coper”)
  • Ag Lab on the Farm
  • Butcher
  • Farmer of 54 Acres
  • House Servant (with a confusing mark in front of it which is a tick)
  • (not stated)
  • Farmers Son

F K and H

Pesky similarities!

Let’s start with the name on the first line….. Joseph -itt. Yes, it is a K. Joseph Kitt.

Now I want you to look at the fact that Joseph Kitt is the “Head” of the household. Note the way that the upper case “H” is formed in “Head”. Keep that in mind and look at the name of the person on the fourth line. If we are honest, the only easily recognisable letters in his name are the second, an “e” and the next to last, an “r”. But we also know what the first letter is too. Yes, it is an upper case “H”, just like the word “Head”. Henry!

What is the surname on the 7th line? Of course. “Hicks” – we have learned how this man writes an upper case “H”.

Now look at the way that this enumerator writes his upper case “F” – in “Francis” in the 7th line, and to the right, “Farmer”. How easy would it have been to have seen a similarity between Francis, Farmer and Flicks as the surname on the 7th line?

The “Do”

Whilst we are on this example, let’s get used to the word “Do”. The word appears millions of times in the British census books. (In a recently published census transcript, many people delighted in counting the number of people whose surnames were entered as “Do” in the census). It appears on this sample eight times, (6 as “Do” and 2 as “do”).

This one is very simple – when you know!

“Do” stands for “Ditto” = the same as the above.

What we can use it for, however, is to recognise an enumerator’s letter D or d  in other words that we don’t know. The letter D is formed in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways by different enumerators. See the occupation in line 3? LeadMiner.

The funny Q

It’s easy once you know. But the letter Q can be written in so many different ways!

  • Granite Quarry Labourer
  • Quarry Man
  • Scholar
  • Quarry Man

The Master

The “Master” crops up quite a lot in the census as part of an occupation. Surprisingly, it is one of those odd words that is often diffucult to recognise for a beginner. Even more so when it is enclosed in brackets, as it often is, which confuses the word recognition.

This sample shows four of them!

There are three basic “levels” of a trade such as a blacksmith, carpenter or tailor, etc.

  1. Apprentice Someone who is learning the trade
  2. Journeyman Someone who has passed his apprenticeship, but works for someone else, paid on a daily basis. The word Journeyman comes from the French “journee” – “by the day”. It doesn’t mean that he was a travelling blacksmith!
  3. Master Someone who owns his own business, often employing others.

So here we see:

Master Carpenter emp[loying] 2 men
Blacksmith (Master)
Blacksmith Master
Taylor Master emp[loying] 1 man

Get used to seeing “Apprentice”, “Journeyman” and “Master”

Also on this sample: Get used to the enumerator’s big black check marks obscuring some letters, and try to imagine what is beneath those big ugly marks. See the 6th occupation on this sample – “Inn Keeper”.

Now for the test

(Answer at the bottom of the page)

Question 1 to 7
Name the seven occupations shown on this sample.

Question 8
What is the occupation shown here?

Question 9 to 17

Remember what you have learned above about trades!

For question 20, remember the long “S”


1. First Class Police Officer. 2. Mason. 3. Mason. 4. Scholar. 5. Labourer. 6. Copper Miner. 7. Farmer of 60 acres 8. Cordwainer & Harness Maker 9. Coach Builder (Journeyman). 10-12. Scholar. 13. Widow of Copper Miner. 14. Copper Miner. 15. Milliner (Apprentice). 16-17. Copper Miner 18. Blacksmith, Pauper. 19. Servant. 20. Schoolmistress

Original census enumerators’ books on CD at Parish Chest