PROPhile - Friends of PRO
Transcription of the 1851 unfilmed
census for Manchester and district
The 1851 census is a vital source of evidence for
family and social historians, being one of the earliest data banks
covering all persons on a single date. It is the first census that
shows full details of family relationships, exact ages and occupations
of all employed persons. Most importantly, it shows for the first
time the birth town or village of all English-born people. This
enables the researcher to go back into the pre-census period with
a definite location for further work. Most of the returns have been
microfilmed, surname and location indexed and analysed by researchers
and family history societies. Their efforts have made the searching
of the records a comparatively easy task and many of us are greatly
indebted to them for their hard work.
In 1983, the Manchester and Lancashire Family History
Society decided to surname index all the returns for the Manchester
district and a programme of work was set up by John Coupe, the society's
project officer. A team of volunteers was recruited and the first
volume of surnames was published in March 1984.
The initial exercise immediately drew attention to
a major problem with the Manchester returns. The microfilms used
to index the details were, in many cases, extremely difficult to
read, mainly because of water damage to the original returns which
had been suffered whilst the returns were still under the jurisdiction
of the Home Office. This water damage was reproduced on the film
as large, ghost-like areas of white with the text being completely
obliterated from the same area. Further enquiries at the Public
Record Office revealed that in many instances the original returns
were so badly damaged that it was not even worth filming them. Indeed,
it was once believed that these returns had been completely destroyed,
much to the disappointment of hundreds of family historians.
The work of indexing the filmed returns continued
between 1983 and 1989 and it was decided to seek clarification from
the PRO about the fate of the unfilmed returns. Although badly damaged
- those affected were covered in a brown stain, caused by the water-based
ink used by the enumerator having been washed all over the paper
- they were all extant and stored with their companion returns in
piece number order. A number of them were extremely fragile, some
were in tatters and many appeared impossibly difficult to read.
In late 1990, an analysis of all the unfilmed returns gave an indication
of the extent of the problem which was much greater than at first
A later comparison with the population tables of
the district indicated that over 150,000 people were missing from
the filmed returns and the areas affected included parts of Manchester
- London Road, Deansgate, Hulme, Chorlton on Medlock and St George's
sub-districts, as well as most of Salford - Greengate, Regent Road,
Pendleton and Pendlebury sub-districts. Outlying areas also had
large swathes of population unaccounted for - Ashton under Lyne,
Oldham, Harpurhey, Blackley and Prestwich all had missing population
amounting to over 50% of the total. This was a serious omission
for historians and one that could not be replaced by other sources.
In early 1991, the Society sought volunteers from
amongst their London-based members to transcribe the unfilmed returns
and the work started in April at Chancery Lane. Susan Lumas of the
Editorial Services Department was appointed as liaison officer between
the PRO and the volunteers and kept an eagle eye on us. The work
had to be carried on without the use of any form of artificial light
and although an ultra violet light source was tried initially, the
results were unsatisfactory, mainly because of the poor quality
of the rather outdated apparatus available. Great reliance was placed
on natural daylight and the teams successes in those days were almost
entirely dependent on the vagaries of London's weather.
The returns were transcribed independently by two
volunteers and their results were matched by a third, who arbitrated
on any differences. A complete transcription of all readable text
was made, including obvious errors, spelling mistakes and side notes.
At one time, there were as many as fifteen volunteers working on
the returns from a large table in the middle of the room either
on a Wednesday or Thursday. Later, the work was transferred to a
'turret' room on the south western comer of the building, thus increasing
significantly the amount of natural daylight available to the team
who usually attended on one day each week, either Tuesdays or Thursdays.
After transcription the results were delivered to
the Society's office in Manchester where another team of volunteers
input the results into a computer prior to their preparation and
eventual production on microfiche. The finished result contained
a surname index, a location index and a full transcription of all
recaptured data. A copy of each microfiche was deposited at the
Census Room for public use.
In 1995, it came to my attention that the problem
of reading very damaged documents had appeared to have been solved
by the authorities in Spain. A computer software package which incorporated
the use of a document scanner and imaging camera had given very
positive results from fifteenth-century documents that appeared
at first sight to have the same type of damage as shown on the Manchester
returns. Examples of "before" and "after" images
from the Spanish documents gave a boost to the chances of an easier
and more effective system being employed on the returns at the PRO
and I wrote to the Keeper with details of and examples from the
Spanish work. Unfortunately the PRO decided that the Spanish system
was rather slow and labour-intensive and was unlikely to be of major
benefit to our work. This was a disappointing set-back, especially
now that we had reached the stage in our transcription work where
the returns were even more difficult to transcribe, the easier ones
having been tackled first.
As most readers will know, the Chancery Lane operation
of the PRO closed in December 1996 and all functions except the
Census Room and other small areas were transferred to Kew. It was
important to maintain the continuity of our work at Kew, especially
now that we could just about see the light at the end of a six-year
tunnel. Realising that the availability of natural daylight was
a prerequisite to the success of our work, my first venture into
the dim area of the Editorial Services Department (facing due north!)
filled me with trepidation and dismay. In fact, Kew One, where the
ESD was located, was deliberately designed to reduce the amount
of natural light available in order to protect the original documents.
However, a knight on a white charger (in the form of Mario Aleppo,
Head of the Conservation Department) came to the rescue.
In spite of the need for external light, Mario's
first task was to show me a location in his department with no windows!!
Ironically called the Disaster Room and normally used whenever documents
were in need of special recovery treatment, this room eventually
proved to be absolutely ideal for our work and we are most grateful
to Mario Aleppo for his foresight. He demonstrated on the unfilmed
returns the use of the latest in ultra-violet light aids - a hand-held
scanner - and convinced me beyond doubt that reliance on natural
daylight to read the unreal was a thing of the past. In addition
to these facilities, we were allowed to use artificial light for
those occasions when UV couldn't pierce the gloom of washed-out
ink. Our experience over the past eighteen months working in the
Disaster Room has confirmed that a combination of UV and artificial
light sources have usually uncovered those parts of the returns
that can be read. Because we are now approaching the end of our
task, the returns that we are currently transcribing are the worst
This was a deliberate policy so that we could build
up an expertise on the more readable returns, ready to tackle the
difficult ones. The current ones are producing retrieval rates of
less than 50% due mainly to extremely weak ink being used by the
enumerator, with the consequent loss of definition from water damage.
Because of the poor condition of these returns we are making a single
transcribed copy but are spending more time on a careful recheck
of the retrieved data.
Our technique on the returns now being worked on
consists of the following:
1. The returns are checked page by page using a strong
artificial light source and a magnifying glass. Each column is checked
vertically rather than checking each line horizontally. In this
way, we are able to identify family names, relationships, ages and
birthplaces with more accuracy.
2. If there are areas that have not been transcribed
by the above method, then a UV hand-held light source is used to
scan the appropriate area of the page. We have to don protective
eye cover when using the UV light and the room is in complete darkness
to ensure the maximum contrast conditions. A powerful magnifying
glass is again used at this stage.
3. The results are checked by a second team member.
Particular attention is given to missing surnames, especially where
all other details of the household have been found.
4. A Xerox copy is made of the completed transcription
sheets and is held by myself as security in case of loss of the
5. The top copy is delivered to Manchester for the
next stage - computer inputting. The final results are published
by the society on microfiche.
The results of our work to date are set out below.
The team has now reduced to four volunteers and we hope to finish
the last batch of returns before Christmas with publication scheduled
for mid 1999.
||Chorlton on Medlock
||Pendleton and Pendlebury
||Pendleton and Pendlebury
||Salford Regent Road
||Manchester St George's
||Harpurhey, Blackley & Prestwich
||Ashton-u-Lyne & Knott Lanes
||*these originals were very badly
What about our future work? We have learnt from our
experience of using both artificial and UV light sources that it
has been possible to decipher some of the most difficult returns.
We therefore intend to analyse our past results and select those
enumeration districts with a low recapture rate - below 60% -
carry out a recheck using our current techniques. This will further
increase the overall recapture rate, hopefully towards 70%.
This project has been long and arduous and I would
like to pay tribute to those members of the Manchester and Lancashire
Family History Society who have assisted me with the work. Some
have found the going rather tough and have only managed to stay
with us for a few weeks; others, like Kath Arkwright and Jeanne
Bryan have lasted the pace almost from the start and special thanks
are due to both of them. We shall never know the full benefits of
our work over the past eight years but, judging from the kind comments
already given to us by those researchers who have discovered their
previously 'lost' ancestors in the unfilmed returns, then these
benefits will increase over the coming years.
Ray Hulley, Project Co-ordinator
Copyright © 2000-2022 Ray Hulley. All rights reserved.