Censuses began in England and Wales in 1801, but these ten-yearly headcounts don’t come into their own as a source for family history until 1841, when the first census to ask for biographical details about the populace took place.
Except in 1941, when war made it impossible, this process has been repeated every ten years since. To protect people’s privacy, census records are usually closed for 100 years, so the most recent one currently available to view is that for 1911.
What Census Records Reveal
Census returns can not only help us determine who our ancestors were, but they can also tell us.
- Where our ancestors were living
- Who they were living with
- What their occupations were
- If they had any servants
- Who their neighbours were
- What their ages were at the time of the census
- If they had any disabilities.
1841 – taken on 7 June
This census records:
- Full name
- Whether or not they were born in the county.
In the 1841 census everyone over 15 years of age had their age rounded down to the nearest five years. So a person aged 64 would appear as 60; someone of 39 as 35. This makes it much more difficult to use this information to calculate a person’s year of birth with any degree of accuracy.
- 1851 – taken on 30th March 1861 – taken on 7th April
- 1871 – taken on 2nd April 1881 – taken on 3rd April
- 1891 – taken on 5th April 1901 – taken on 31st March
From the 1851 census to the 1901 census, the census records:
- Full name
- Their relationship to the head of the family.
- Marital status
- Age on last birthday
- If they were an employer or employed
- Parish and county of birth and
It also tells you the:
- Civil Parish or municipal ward
- The number of rooms occupied in the dwelling if it was less than 5.
1911 – taken on 2nd April
This census provides additional information including:
- The number of complete years their current marriage had lasted
- The number of children born within this marriage
- The number of children that had died
People were also asked:
- the industry they worked in
- the number of rooms occupied in the house
- the age at which any infirmity began
Common Pitfalls when using the Census
As with any family history records, original census returns are not free from mistakes; you should therefore keep an open mind when using the data and not believe everything you read.
Some common errors that can be found in census returns are:
Errors in recording census data
As illiteracy was quite high in the 19th century, many people may have asked their friends, neighbours or even the enumerators to help fill out the forms.
In institutions or on vessels it was the person in charge of the prison or ship who completed the details on behalf of everyone in the institution or on the ship. This led to many errors in note taking and in recording the final information.
Typical mistakes were made when spelling peoples’ names, or noting their occupations, or even when recording their ages.
Census age discrepancies
Whilst enumerators and the officials at institutions made mistakes when recording information, individuals who completed the forms themselves also made some errors.
This is certainly true of some people who were quite inventive about their age, or simply had only a vague notion of when they were born.
Ten years is a long time, and a lot of things happened in our ancestors’ lives between one census and another.
During this time they may have got married and re-married perhaps, resulting in a number of name changes. Alternatively, there may have been cases where they wanted to change their identity, perhaps for personal or political reasons.
You may, for example, have a bigamist in the family who changed his name to flee from a former partner. You may also have ancestors who anglicised their names over a period of time to suit the political environment.
Many people also lied about their occupations when completing census returns. For example, in the 19th century thousands of women were prostitutes, yet this is certainly not what they recorded on their forms.
Also, whilst most children were noted as ‘scholars’ by their parents, this may have been to disguise the fact that they were breaking the law by sending their underage children out to work.
Census – nicknames
Nicknames and diminutives can derail your family history search – a man can be William to acquaintances, Will to his friends and Billie to his mother.
When searching for your ancestors in the census records, keep an open mind as to where they may have been on the night the particular census was taken.
If you have an idea about where they lived, you should start your search with that address. If they are not recorded at that address, you should broaden your search.
Missing and damaged volumes
Some parts of certain censuses are missing from the archives. There are missing pages in all censuses but 1861 has suffered most, with entire pieces missing.
Tips for searching the census
- A census is taken at an address, not specifically of a family or household.
- When searching for your relatives, you should remember that even though your ancestor may have lived at one address, if he or she were not at home on the night of the census then they will not be included in the enumerator’s records for that address.
- If they were visiting friends or relatives that evening, they may, however, be included in the census at that particular address.
- Many people, particularly young, unmarried women, were in service and may be found at the residence of their employers.
- You should also think about your ancestors occupations too. If for example you know that your great-great-grandfather was a sailor, he may have actually been at sea that evening – in which case he wouldn’t be recorded on the census. However, if he was on a ship that was docked in an English port, then he should be recorded at the ship’s address – as he was there that evening – rather than at his home address.
- The same situation may apply to any relatives who worked as medical staff in hospitals, or wardens in prisons, or night-workers in a factory. If they were at the institutions on the night of the census, they would be recorded at that address rather than their home address.
The Census Online
There are lots of websites offering census searching and the terms that you can use for your search varies at each. The most complete collection is at www.ancestry.co.uk, which offers subscribers indexes and images for all the useful UK census years, searchable by name. Other commercial sites offering comprehensive coverage include www.findmypast.com, http://www.genesreunited.com and http://www.thegenealogist.co.uk. You can also search transcriptions of the 1881 census for free on the website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints www.familysearch.org. Scottish census records, with links to digitized images, are at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk