As part of a series examining family history resources for beginners, librarian Helen Skilbeck looks in more depth at UK census records 1841-1911, which can be accessed through the Ancestry website. You can find more information in our research guide.
What is the census?
One of the most valuable resources for family historians, historic census records can provide a detailed look at a whole family in one handy place. Census records are really a snapshot of a household on a designated night. Usually the census count took place in the spring time and it recorded everyone at an address on that particular night, whether they actually lived there or not. It recorded every adult and child, every visitor and servant, and recorded valuable details about their ages, occupations and birthplace. Residential properties were not the only places to submit census returns; hospitals, prisons, workhouses and ships in port were all obliged to file details of who was resident on census night.
The first census was carried out in 1801 and was mainly a headcount that was used for statistical purposes. Every ten years another census was taken but it is only from 1841 that it becomes useful for family tree research. The census is still completed every ten years with the most recent one being in 2011, although the personal details are kept secret for 100 years due to data protection rules.
Ancestry has census records for England and Wales from 1841-1911 and each census year can be searched individually or all years at one time. The original handwritten pages can be viewed although the handwriting can be challenging at times. The census enumerator has also made marks on each page, especially over the age columns, which can again make it difficult to read the entries.
What information can you find on a census?
Census records usually give the name, age, occupation, relationship to the head of the household, marital status and birthplace of each person. The 1911 census also asked how long the current marriage had lasted and how many children were living or had died. It is also the only census to be filled out by the head of the house and includes a signature. Each census also has an infirmity column, variously labelled ‘blind, deaf or dumb’ or ‘imbecile, idiot or lunatic’.
However, there are some variations in the information you find on a census return, with the 1841 census proving most problematic. It is the only census to give an approximate age of each householder and anyone over 15 usually found their ages rounded down to the nearest 5 years. All later census returns recorded actual ages rather than approximations. The 1841 census does not record the birth place of individuals, instead only asking whether they were born in the county or not (yes or no). Neither does it record the relationships in each household, making it is more difficult to ascertain who is related and how. The 1851 and all later census records give actual ages, birth places and relationship to the head of household so become much more valuable for a family historian.
As well as the England and Wales Census Collection, Ancestry also has access to transcripts of the Scottish Census 1841-1911, the US Federal Census Collection 1790-1940 and Canadian Census Collection 1851-1911. Transcripts for some census records can also be found on the Family Search website, although you will need to create a free account.
To search the UK Census Collection please visit a library or community hub to access Ancestry. Free remote access has now ended. On the Ancestry homepage scroll to the bottom of the page and select UK Census Collection to the left or a specific UK or Scottish census year on the right.
To view other census collections, select the search option on the top black menu bar, choose Census & Electoral Rolls and then narrow by category.
As always, if you encounter any issues with using Ancestry, or have any questions about the census, please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org, or 0113 378 6982.