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Durham in the 1881 Census

Search for your ancestors in Durham in the 1881 Census and discover a detailed snapshot of their life at the time.

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Durham in 1881

Taken on 3rd April 1881, these historical records are your windows into life in County Durham at a fascinating period in UK history – the Victorian era.

The 1881 County Durham Census collected the following information: full name, exact age, relationship to head of household, gender, occupation, parish and county of birth, medical disabilities, employment status.

Durham literally provided the fuel for the industrial revolution and experienced a tremendous population growth in the 19th century as a result of the mining of vast coalfields stretching across the county.

On April 3rd, the day of the 1881 census, there were 874,295 people recorded in County Durham, which at the time included Tyne and Wear. Of these, 51,236 listed “coal miner” as their occupation. Such was the scale of human influx that most people living in Durham today count as their ancestors those who arrived here in the 19th century.

Thanks to the technological advances of the times, the coal industry transformed both the landscape of Durham and the fabric of society, and of course, amassed great wealth for the landowners.

Alongside the coal and lead industries, Sunderland became a major shipbuilding port, even hailed as the "largest ship-building town in the world"!

Closely linked to the development of the coal and lead mining industries was the expansion of the railway, and Durham was instrumental in railway engineering innovation, earning it the accolade “The Cradle of the Railways”. In the same year as the census, The Tanway railway became part of the North Eastern railway as it converted to steam locomotive operation.

As with many other rapidly changing industrial counties, Durham would have struggled to provide housing and infrastructure for the many thousands of people flocking to the county in search of employment. Adding to that, the working conditions in the mine pits were infamous and the cause of the loss of many a life. Concern for miners' welfare also gave rise to and strengthened trade unions, who became a major political force.

Find Your County Durham Past

Whether you are searching for your ancestors or researching local history, Findmypast has extensive records from County Durham in 1881 , so you can be sure to find the piece of the past that matters to you.

To search the census returns, simply input the information you have about your relatives into our search bar and hit search.

With options to search by name, location, birth place, birth year, location and so much more, filtering out the hundreds of thousands of Durham denizens is as easy as clicking a button.

For example, if you have a relative with the surname Smith who you know lived in the county, just enter Smith in the “Last name” field and Durham in the “County” field and you’ll get these search results.

Using the transcripts of the census provided, members can then inspect the original images of the census enumeration books, which will help validate findings and expand family trees.

Notable Names

While searching for your ancestors in Victorian era County Durham, you may come across a few illustrious names, who helped shape the county history.

Numerous descriptions of the life of a coal-miner and the 19th century Durham working class can be found in the poems of Thomas “Tommy” Armstrong ,also known as the Pit-Man Poet. Tommy resided most of his life in Tanfield. Although he and his wife Mary Ann had 14 children, only two are listed as living at their home in the 1881 census.

The latter end of the 19th century saw the formation of two prolific Durham sport clubs, the Durham County Cricket Club, founded one year after the census and Sunderland FC, whose founder James Allan is listed as a schoolmaster, living with his young wife and new-born son in Bishop Wearmouth.

Of course not everyone in Durham was employed in the mining industries. Perhaps your ancestors were part of the large household of prominent mining engineer John Marley , who in 1881 lived with his 5 children and servants at Thornfield House in Darlington.

Search Tips

The original documents will have been given to your ancestors some time in advance before collection on April 3rd.

As illiteracy was still common, third party “enumerators” will have written on many people’s behalf, which could lead to some errors in the transcripts. This makes it of vital importance to check the original images.

Also beware other errors such as inaccurate birth dates. Our search function allows a margin of error of two years and you can adjust this further if you wish.

There are 874,295 Durhamites waiting for you in the 1881 Census, so enjoy finding out all about the ones that made an impact on your family history!

Search Durham by surname