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Census Returns

If you have just started researching your family tree, Simon Fowler has some sound advice in this and other articles in our ancestors series.

Simon is an experienced writer and lecturer regularly giving lectures at the Society of Genealogists. His latest book Military History on the Internet has just been published by Pen & Sword

Ancestors is the Family History Magazine from the National Archives click for the special offer they are making to laterlife visitors


Census returns are some of the most important records you will need to use in your genealogical research. And thanks to the miracle of the internet they are all available online in an easy to use format.

Click on the images to see the expanded census details


These records are important because they record almost everybody who was living in Britain on a particular night. They give the names, age, relationship, marital status, occupation and birthplace of every person living in each house, although the 1841 census is not as detailed as the later ones.

Often you can obtain information from them that you can get from no other source.

The first census was taken in 1801 but was little more than a headcount, and it wasn’t until 1841 that the names and other details of individuals were collected. There has been a census every ten years since then and the returns for all years up to 1901 are available.

The online services are very much designed for the beginner. You type in the name you are researching into an index and it will tell you where it appears. You can then decide whether to look at images of the census itself or a transcript of the entry, which is usually cheaper.

Searching the index is free although there is a small charge to download and view the original images or transcripts.

A complete set of the censuses is available at . Many local libraries have a subscription to the site where you can use their service for free.

Findmypast ( ) has the 1841, 1861-1891 censuses, and the 1901 census is at . This has a very good index.

Transcripts of the 1881 census is available for free at  and . Transcripts of other censuses are available (for a fee) at . Many family history societies have compiled detailed and very accurate indexes for their areas, particularly for the 1851 census. These are often available online at

Scottish census records (again 1841-1901) are at . Irish census records are being scanned and indexed at present and the first batch is due to be released shortly. For more details visit .
Online census returns can also be seen free of charge at The National Archives (TNA) at Kew ( ) and (until March 2008 when it closes) the Family Records Centre (FRC).

1911 census

The first part of the 1911 census will be available towards the end of 2008. It is being released slightly early under Freedom of Information legislation, although entries containing potentially sensitive information remain hidden until January 2012.


Problems and pitfalls

Although the online censuses are pretty accurate, inevitably transcribers do misread entries. If you can’t find your ancestor, trying using a wild card symbol to replace a letter or letters – for example Wood* will list all the Woods, Woodwards and so on, or Wo?d will reveal Wood, Word, Wold and so forth.
Or try all the variants on the name you can think off – for Wood, you might try Ward, Vood, or even Hood.
If you do find your ancestor and the index is wrong, don’t forget to tell the data provider so that they can amend the entry, so that other people won’t have your problems.
If the worst comes to the worst – and you know roughly where your ancestors lived – you may need to go through microfilm copies of the census to find them. The FRC (or TNA from March 2008) has a set covering all of England and Wales, and your local studies library may have a set for the local area.
There are two other points to note:
Often the ages are slightly wrong – usually because the individual did not know how old they way.
Occupations may also be misleading, because poor people in particular may have had two or more jobs to make ends meet. And curiously although there were tens of thousands of prostitutes in Victorian England, almost none are so described in the census.


Are you interested in tracing your family history?
Ancestors, the family history magazine from The National Archives, is the essential read for all family, local and military historians. Packed full of informative features from family history experts, it gives practical advice for beginners and more experienced researchers, reveals the best family history websites and online resources and news on what is happening at The National Archives.

Articles in the series:

Get going with your family history

Census Returns

Birth, marriage and death records

Birth, marriage and death certificates

Going back before 1837

back to laterlife interest

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