The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing

History of the term ‘indexer’ in British census returns

The Indexer: The International Journal of Indexing (2020), 38, (4), 349–379.


Through an analysis based primarily on British census returns from 1851 to 1911, supplemented by other online genealogical resources, the evolving use of the terms ‘index’ and ‘indexer’ in occupational descriptions is charted. Initially, the majority of entries related to watch, clock and gas meter index makers. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, ‘index clerks’ and others involved in putting things into alphabetical order became more prominent, with the first appearance of an identifiable book indexer in the census returns dating from 1881. Supplementing the existing literature on well-known pioneers of the profession, such as Henry B. Wheatley, the census returns and other sources consulted offer fascinating glimpses into the socio-economic status, family background and everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ indexers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the vast majority of whom were female and living in or near London.

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Author details

King, Nicola