Census & BMD: Rooms, With One or More Windows

There is much to write about on window count in genealogy; why do we know about it, and what did it mean for our ancestor.

Scotland’s Census 1861 was the first to ask household heads to report “number of rooms, with one or more windows”.1 The answer was captured in the far right column of the census form, after personal data. This placement suggested it was proxy for prosperity. In fact, concurrent US censuses asked  for the value of real and personal estate of household heads. 2 Many genealogy stories, including “Double Genealogy: the Adoption Witness” used windows, to imagine their ancestors’ economic plight.

The question was stand alone in terms of inside home environment. It the intent were to evaluate needs of an individual household then one might expect a follow-up on “total number of rooms”. It would be interesting to know if any drill down occurred after the census was taken to family level. That is, did outreach services, or research bodies, examine individual family returns to effect change?  If known, please comment.

The intent probably went more toward global application, around administrating the public interest. The first clue is that three sets of numbers were rolled up in each Census Enumeration Booklet. They can be seen tabulated together in the header area, as one receives a census from ScotlandsPeople. Buildings were counted as inhabited, or not; inhabitants, as male or female.  Windowed room count was then aggregated with these building and inhabitant data.

Also to this point, the column placement changed in 1911.That census captured windows where other building data were historically situated – on the left side of the census form. The result appears to be a tool, whose value might be seen in action or funding, at the parish or district level, say, for school boards. 

More broadly, the intention seems to have been to gain statistical insight on dwellings across Scotland. The “Integrated Census Microdata (I-CEM) Guide” states 

The collection and tabulation of information regarding the number of rooms with windows was primarily for ‘sanitary’ reasons. It showed that ‘town’ accommodation was little worse in terms of persons per room(s) with windows than ‘rural’ housing.” 3  

Integrated Census Microdata (I-CEM) Guide 3

One could wonder further. Theirs was largely a coal burning environment, where damp does not easily dry and tuberculosis, along with other contagions, was rampant.  More research might reveal if the windows were fixed, or could open. Should there be more than one, were they strategically placed for cross ventilation?

Light affects mood and physical health. Room count was not stipulated, but the question implies that windowless rooms were normal, as were homes with only one window. The guess here, is that the first window would go to a common area. Perhaps kitchen and living area were open concept.  Refinement on that guess, is also welcome. For certain, one window, sized to the era, would not over illuminate, even on the sunniest of day. One could hope for glow from stove or fireplace.


As suggested, the concept of windowed rooms was used in the book, as related to adoptive great grand grandparents, John Dickson (1816 -1878) and Margaret Dickson (Paterson) (1818-1881). Both were born, were married and died in the Parish of Lesmahagow, in Lanarkshire. 4

They were cotton weavers, in 1861, living in the hamlet of Kirkfieldbank.Their family of six, was from two generations. They enjoyed two rooms with window(s). Their census page covered four families in all; one was similar in situation. A cattle dealer with a family of four, had six windowed rooms, while a grocer’s family of six, had four. Cotton weaving it seemed, was a humble undertaking.

The cotton weaving industry in Lanarkshire, was negatively impacted by diminished raw material supply; a factor of the US Civil War, mid-1860s. 

John was already 45 in 1861; he found new work as a quarrier after cotton weaving failed him.  The job required a move to the nearby village of Crossford in Lesmahagow. That home was seen in 1871, inhabited by three generations.1 It represented a downgrade of affordable circumstance. Only one room had window(s), with house count, still six. One could wonder on civility over privacy and sharing of the scarce natural light. Window count told the story of the collapse of an industry, and its impact on workers and their families.

The transition was not kind to John; he died before the next census, an old man, at 62. His widow was still in the Crossford home in 1881.1 She had become paralyzed shortly after John died. Their teen aged granddaughter, Mary McKinlay born 1863, who had come under grandparent care at four, remained in the home. She was joined by her infant, Margaret Whitefield.  Plus, my adoptive great grandfather, James Dickson, and his new wife, Maggie Gemmell. Four generations – an invalid and an infant – one room with natural light. It boggles the mind, and hurts the heart.

There is more about rooms with window(s) that could be worth the write in genealogies. Imagine their dark night; their home allowing scant moonlight, under which, to quietly roll the invalid, change the babe, the midden outdoors, and another long work day looming.

Each case would be unique, but in mine, the matriarch would typically be at home.  Did she capture the few minutes when the brightest light streamed through, to stitch or knit? Steal them to “sponge bathe” wee ones. Prepare the stew?  Constantly change work station to follow the arc, should she be so lucky as to have more than one window? Her inside dim would grow meaner as her vision dimmed with age, unlikely to be corrected with glasses. Yes, there is lots to write about windows, in genealogy.

The Dickson family of Lesmahagow: Kirkfieldbank and Crossford. Our James Dickson, may have been a chosen son in 1882 – explored in Double Genealogy: The Adoption Witness. We would treasure such adoptive heritage. CLICK for guide to stories on Lesmahagow names: Tweedle, Dickson, Paterson, McKinlay, Brown. Plus: Gemmell, Young of Edinburgh, Barr of Whitburn/Airdrie, Russell, Wilson, Black of Carnwath.

Please scroll, to like, or comment, below.


Notes and Sources

  1. Census data were found at ScotlandsPeople and are © Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland
  2. Data found at Findmypast Ltd, Website: findmypast.com ©brightsolid online publishing ltd. ©2017 Findmypast. With thanks to Findmypast www.findmypast.uk.com
    • Census Records 1850-1910 USA. Underlying data custodian is United States National Archives and Records Administration, (NARA), College Park MD. https://www.archives.gov
  3. “Integrated Census Microdata (I-CEM) Guide” , Edward Higgs, Christine Jones, Kevin Schurer and Amanda Wilkinson, University of Essex, Department of History, September 2013. PG 42. https://www1.essex.ac.uk/history/research/icem/html
  4. Birth and Death data were found at ScotlandsPeople and are © Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland

12 thoughts on “Census & BMD: Rooms, With One or More Windows

  1. Oh, you bring it alive! My ancestors in Govan, Gorbals, must have lived in these conditions. Tenements, crowded, rampant pthsis and scrofula took their lives. Imagining the mother and how she lived out her day….It was a wonder we were even born due to the loss they experienced.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. the Census began this month.
    still waiting on the folks to knock on my door and bother my afterwork (which is midday) snooze

    great informative post!


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