How the census returns can help

THE census has been taken every 10 years since 1801 except during the war in 1941. Useful family history information (i.e. names) is only released to the public after 100 years so the most recent census return available is that of 1901.


A valuable resource for family historians lies in lists of names from 19th century censuses which can also provide extra information.

About each census

6 June 1841
IFOr the first time a census included names, occupationand whether born in the same county, of born in Scotland, Ireland or foreign parts. Ages were given but over the age of 15 -they were rounded down to five-year bands.

30 March 1851 HO107
The above information continued and added to this came: marital status, place of birth and place of worship. Alctual ages were given — but accuracy still depended on the individual. This was the first census to be indexed — al;though mainly in paper format at family history socieities.

7 April 1861 RG9
In addition the the above - relation to Head of Family - Whether Blind, or Deaf-and-Dumb. There are very few surviving naval and merchant shipping returns bofore this date.

2 April 1871 RG10
Also noted imbeciles, idiots and lunatics.

3 April 1881 RG11
This is the only census to have been completely transcribed and indexed. It is possible to search by placename and surname.

April 5 1891 RG12
Many counties have been indexed by family history societies and there is a street index at the Family Records Centre. Used in combination with the 1881 census you can check on family movement and births or possible deaths in the family.

31 March 1901
Available on-line — with free index searches — but with charges for access to the main data which can be viewed in a tablulated form or as photographic images of the original pages.

Although the census began in 1801 the first four were just headcounts and are not much use to the family historian because they do not give individuals’ names.

But from then on they became more and more useful.

Copies of the returns, on microfilm, are available at local record offices and main libraries. In the main these will be for the appropriate locality, although some offices hold them for the whole country.

You do need information before you start looking, however.

Although the two online are searchable by surname that alone would offer too many hits to make it worthwhile.

Birth or marriage certificates should provide you with an address and the closer you can get to one of the census dates (see panel left) the better.

Armed with this you can track down a census return.

The best place to start is the 1901 census, the most recently released for public perusal.

Although the census has taken place every 10 years since 1801 (except for 1941) there is a 100-year rule in the UK relating to access to public data.

This means the personal details of the census returns for the years 1911 to 2001 are not yet publicly available.

The census records who was in each household over the period Sunday night to Monday morning — with special arrangements for recording crews of vessels afloat, military personnel, night workers, itinerants and travellers.

Remember that the census is based on an person’s presence on the night of the census and is not based on whether or not they were living permanently at the returning address.

This could give rise to the situation of children living at a house without parents — should their parents be staying the census night elsewhere — or the appearance of families living together.

You have to work out whether an aunt, for instance, was visiting or living with the family — cross checking with other census returns may give a better indication of the situation.

Census indexes are arranged by place, not surname. Therefore your search could take a while, because you will be looking through the records for a complete district — and hoping that your ancestors were there on the night the census was taken.

Each census enumerator’s book contains details of his walk (route) to collect his returns.

Sometimes roads disappear and names change. So when preparing to check a census return it is worth making note of adjacent roads covered by the enumerator and in particular public houses.

These can then be cross checked against road indexes for the individual census

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