5.1 Introduction to censuses
The census is a survey taken by the government every 10 years to collect information on the population of the United Kingdom. The National Archives holds census returns for England, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The census is subject to a one hundred year closure period because it contains personal information. This means that the last census you can currently look at is the 1911 census.
From 1801 to 1831 the censuses were simply head counts with no personal information on individuals recorded (except in exceptional cases).
The 1841 census was the first to ask detailed questions about individuals. The following information was recorded about each person:
- forename and surname
- age (rounded down to the nearest five for those aged 15 or over)
- whether they were born in the county in which they were enumerated (Y or N)
- whether they were born in Scotland (S), Ireland (I) or Foreign Parts (F)
In 1841 an address was also shown for each household but house numbers were rarely given, and in rural areas you will often find only the name of the village or hamlet.
From 1851 to 1901 the format of the census returns and the range of questions asked remained largely the same. The following details can be found for each individual:
- forename, middle names (often just initials) and surname
- relationship to the head of the household (usually the oldest male)
- marital status
- age (at last birthday)
- occupation (i.e. their source of income)
- county and parish of birth (if born in England or Wales)
- country of birth (if born outside England and Wales)
- whether they suffered from certain medical disabilities
- language spoken (in Wales, from 1891; on the Isle of Man, from 1901)
The full address is given and, progressively with each census, more information about the dwelling itself.
5.1.1 Census dates
The dates of the censuses is important as it will affect how old someone is (have they had their birthday that year before the census was taken).
The dates of the censuses are as follows:
1801 10 March
1811 27 May
1821 28 May
1831 29 May
1841 6 June
1851 30 March
1861 7 April
1871 2 April
1881 3 April
1891 5 April
1901 31 March
1911 2 April
5.2 The use of censuses information for genealogists
The census provides you with a picture of what your ancestors were doing, where and who they were living with, their ages and relationships. When used in conjunction with birth, marriage and death certificates many people are able to get a lot of information about their ancestors in the 19th century. The ease of access to online copies of census information has revolutionised genealogical research.
Most people can think of some relative who would be alive in 1911, your or your father’s grandfather for instance (possibly would be a small child). If you haven’t got back that far get the birth certificates of some elderly relatives and that will give you their parents. You can then look for the person alive on 2nd April 1911, and find them on the census. If they are a child, they may well be living with their parents – which will take you back another generation. You may be lucky and find grandparents are living in the same house as well.
Having found someone, the 1901 census will show you who else is living with them and what their relationship is. The census will also show you where people were born and how old they were. You should then be able to find anyone who is aged 10 or older on the 1901 census, and anyone who is aged 20 or older on the 1891 census and so on.
As the census shows marital status you can use it to narrow down the time period to search for marriages and deaths. For instance if John Smith was shown as single on the 1891 census and married in the 1901 census that would tell you that the marriage took place between the 5th April 1891 and the 31st March 1901. If Jane Jones was shown as married in the 1891 census and widowed in the 1901 census that would tell you that the death of Jane Jones husband took place between the 5th April 1891 and the 31st March 1901.
5.3 Reading old censuses
Most local and county record offices hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own areas, and census returns can also be viewed at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ Family History Centres. Some libraries may also contain census information for their area.
There are some sites offering free census information. Free Cen will eventually have all the information free of charge, but at present it does not have comprehensive coverage of all years.
There are other sites, where a fee is charged. These include:
UK BMD gives a useful summary of what is held where, including some sites which just contain a few parishes:
This site is a directory of free census records (including some overseas sites):
Some census information is also available from the Federation of Family History Societies at:
The census indexes are often flawed (e.g. due to misreading bad handwriting) and it may be necessary to look in more than one index to find your people.
For Scottish census records please look at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk
5.3.2 Transcription errors
When the censuses were transcribed it is inevitable that some errors would arise from difficulties in reading handwriting etc. It is therefore possible that you may not be able to find your ancestor because the transcribers misread the name and entered it incorrectly.
There are inevitable errors in all transcription involving large amounts of data and if you can’t find your relatives using one service it may pay to try a different service.
5.3.3 Which site should I use?
This is a question that many genealogists will spend hours debating! If money is no object, I’d say all of them! No site is perfect, and some times you’ll find one site is better than another, and then on another occasion it could be the other way round. Remember many public libraries allow you to search the census with one (or more) of the paid for sites free of charge in the library.
5.4 The 1939 Register
The 1939 Register for England and Wales, was taken on 29 September 1939, just after the start of World War 2. Strictly speaking it’s not classed as a census, but much of the information contained is similar.
The Register was used for the supply of ration books – so no registration, no rations. As a result most people will be listed!
Find My Past released the 1939 Register, on 2nd November 2015, here:
Ancestry have now also got the 1939 Register, here:
You can view household transcripts, which include full dates of birth, occupations, address & updated names of people in the household.
As the 1921 census has not yet been released, and the 1931 census was destroyed during an air raid on London and the 1941 census was never taken it will be a very useful resource for genealogists.
You can search the records and see a preview page. To see the detailed records you need to unlock a record. Unfortunately to do this you need to buy credits (unless you have a Find My Past subscription).
There’s more information here:
Normally with censuses all of the individuals listed are unavailable to view for 100 years and one day after the census being taken. The information of some individuals’ has been redacted from the records, meaning that when viewing a household, there may be one or more members whose information is unavailable to view. There’s more about this on Find My Past’s blog: