The closest Belgian equivalent to United States census records are the population registers [Bevolkingsregisters – Registres de la population – Melderegister], large heavy folio books that contain information about the inhabitants of a particular town. Unlike census records, which provide a snapshot of what the population looks like at a particular moment, the registers are dynamic. They are kept up-to-date for ten years or more, until a new snapshot is taken and the process is started over again. In Belgium, hard copy population registers were created and maintained until 1992, at which point the government switched to a computerized database system.
The concept of a dynamic inventory of citizens was introduced by the French during their occupation of the southern Netherlands in 1795. The French decree instructed the municipal police to create a register of all inhabitants that listed their full names, place of birth, last residence, occupation, and other means of support. Once the register was created, it needed to be updated with notes on births, deaths, and subsequent changes in residence.
In this example from Antwerp we can see how the household of Jaques Ignace Peeters, age 33, at 343 Lange Beenhoudersstraat was enumerated. He and his wife Elisabeth Lasters, age 34, were tripe merchants. Elisabeth had one child under the age of 12. Also residing with them is Jeanne Lasters, age 28, a seamstress [couturière]. She may have been a sister or cousin of Elisabeth. Elisabeth and Jeanne were both born in Turnhout, and arrived in the city of Antwerp in 1778 and 1786 respectively. Jaques owned the house which was valued at 2,000 guilders. The family did not have any other possessions [sans fortune].
Some towns continued to maintain these registers well into the nineteenth century, but in many municipalities the practice quickly fell into disrepair. In Wallonia especially, the law was mostly ignored. Aa a result, many more of the early lists have survived in Flanders. The government of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands ordered a new census in 1828, but this effort was soon interrupted by the Belgian Revolution of 1830. In 1846 however, the Belgian state reintroduced population registers. Detailed instructions were provided on how to create and maintain the inventories in large folio books.2
The books were arranged by street address with one double folio for each residence. On the left side the members of each household were listed in the following order:
- head of the family
- other members of the family
And for each individual the following details were recorded:
- first name(s)
- place of birth
- date of birth or age
- marital status
- date of arrival in the town
The right page provided room to record former and later residences, changes in marital status, deaths, military service, detentions, and/or other absences.
The following page from the population register from 1847-1866 for the village of Grez-Doiceau in Brabant, represents house number 40, which first was the home of the Laurent family, and later became the home of the family of Guillaume Prévinaire.
The notes on the right hand side explain why the members of the first family have been struck out.
Jean-Baptiste Laurent, a carpenter, died on 24 September 1855.
His wife Marie Therese Dekeuster and the seven children – François, Jean Philippe, Jean Joseph, Marie Flore, Maria Rosalie, Marie Philomene, and Marie Therese Rosalie – subsequently departed for the United States (they were scrapped from the register on 26 March 1856).
On 19 December 1856, Guillaume Prévinaire, a laborer, his wife Béatrix Romdenne, and their four children – Désirée, Gustave Joseph, Isidores, and Désirée Adèle – arrived from Bossut-Gottechain and moved into the house.
Until 1992, the registers were maintained in book format, although in 1920, separate leaves became an option, and after 1970 towns were permitted to use family cards instead.
Population registers remain closed to family historians for 120 years. The 1890-1900 registers, for example, will not become available until 1 January 2021.
Many of the early nineteenth-century registers – though not all – were microfilmed by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. Not all have been digitized, but are only available on microfilm at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Search the Catalog by specific town + subject “population.”
In some cases, the original paper copies are still held by the towns that created them. Others have deposited their books with one of the regional repositories of the state archives. Some regional and municipal archives have digitized their population registers and have made them available online (e..g., Antwerp, Brugge, and Mechelen). Email the town for more information (google “name of town” + “dienst bevolking” or “service population” – most often there is an email address such as firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com to which you can send your queries.
Population registers are a convenient source to reconstruct an entire family, as they easily allow you to chart the history of each individual member. They are also the only source that shows you when and where the family resided, and when they moved elsewhere. But as with any resource, caution is advised. The accuracy of the information in the registers depends on the diligence of the municipal clerk. The recorded ages in the early registers are not always exact. Be diligent and verify all information against civil registration records!
Cite this post
Kristine Smets, “Belgian Population Registers,” The Belgian American, (https://www.thebelgianamerican.com : accessed [date]), posted 16 April 2020.
- Antwerp, Canton Antwerp, Department of Deux-Nèthes, First French Republic, Recensement général de la population d’Anvers, 4me année républicaine [1795-1796], Premiere Section, no 343, Jaques Ignace Peeters; digital image, “Archieven van de stad Antwerpen,” FelixArchief (xxx : viewed 23 March 2020), > Publieke Taken > Burgerlijke stand en bevolking > Bevolking > Distrikt Antwerpen > Volkstellingen > Telling van het jaar IV > 1e wijk, 1-989 > katern_1 > image 18 of 25.
- “Bevolkingsregisters,” Tijdschrift der Gemeentebesturen, Weldadigheidsburelen, Gods- en Gasthuizen en Kerkfabrieken, vol. 6, no. 1 (1907), 8-14. Also, René Laboutte and Rashidi Obotela, “Les registres de population en Belgique: Genèse d’une technique administrative etd’une source de démographie historique,” Bulletin de la Commission royale d’histoire, Académie royale de Belgique 154 (1988) p. 285-305.
- Grez-Doiceau, Brabant, Belgium, Registre de population 1847-1866, maison 40; digital image, “Grez-Doiceau (Brabant), Bureau de Population, Registres de population, 1830-1866,” digital images FamilySearch https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:3QHV-J3DK-36WS?i=46&cat=181912 : viewed 3 April 2020), 1847-1966 > image 47-261; citing FHL digital film no. 8,722,118.