Census – A Vital Family History Resource

Librarian Louise Birch takes a look at how the valuable role the census plays in genealogy.

Every 10 years a national survey is undertaken to create a picture of the households and residents of the UK.  This is the National Census, and this Sunday 21st March the next one is due to occur in England and Wales.

Information taken during the census is used to plan public funded services including healthcare, housing, education and transport.  Under the Hundred Year rule this data will remain anonymised and inaccessible to the general public for 100 years, but after that it becomes a treasure trove for anyone tracing their family tree.

Only in exceptional circumstances is the Registrar General able to release specific information from 90, 80 and 70 year old closed censuses.

The census is made up of household responses with a household defined as:

“One person living alone, or a group of people (who do not have to be related) living at the same address who share cooking facilities and share a living room or sitting room or  dining area”.

And a householder is defined as:

“A person who usually lives at this address and, on their own or with someone else: owns or rents the accommodation, and/or pays the household bills and expenses”

The householder is responsible for completing the census for everyone in the household or, for ensuring household members fill it out for themselves.

So how is all this useful for anyone searching their family history.

Once the Hundred Year rule expires the data can be viewed and searched, and if your grandparents or great grandparents were in the England or Wales during census time they should appear on the latest released version (currently 1911). The 1921 census data will be available to view next year in 2022.

School photograph – Cross Stamford Street 1919. These children would first appear on a census in 1921, this will be available to view in 2022.

In 1841 the census began asking for personal information including name, gender, occupation, birthplace, and age.   Also shown was who was residing or visiting the household overnight on the night of the census.

In 1851 they recorded the relationship of everyone to the head of the household, it was more common back then for larger, extended families to live together in one dwelling so the census records will reveal not just names and ages but everyone’s familial place within the family.

Despite religion not being asked about until much later, local and family historians have been able to use census statistics to build a historical picture of immigrant communities. [1] [2] Nigel Grizzard’s essay ‘Demographic: The Jewish Population of Leeds – how many Jews?’ published in Derek Fraser’s 2019 book [3],  shows how “Recent demographic research has used new methodologies to analyse census data based on the original census forms, which permits a more detailed picture of Jewish migration and occupation”.

By taking your census research and pairing it with electoral rolls, church and cemetery records, and birth, marriage and death certificates, researchers are able to build detailed family histories.

All previous censuses gave control of the information to the householder and/or census enumerator, the digital nature of the 2021 census allows individuals over the age of 16 years to answer independently and protect people’s privacy.

“Respondents aged 16 years and older are able to request an individual access code or paper form if they wish to respond separately to the rest of their household.  This enables people to answer the census privately, without having to tell the person completing the household form they have done so.  Individual answers will override any answers submitted on the household form.  This is vital to protect people’s privacy and ensure good quality data.”

The Office of National Statistics

Some Interesting Facts about the Census

The 1851 census return for Buckingham Palace lists Queen Victoria’s occupation as ‘The Queen’ however, it is Prince Albert who is listed as Head of the Household as was customary at the time.  In later censuses Queen Victoria claimed back the Head of Household status.

Some census years have faced ‘questionable’ results due to members of the public acting in ways not necessarily in the spirit of the survey.

In 1911 a boycott was organised by Suffragette groups with some women remaining away from home for the evening and some heads of households refusing to report women at the address.  Leeds Suffragette Mary Gawthorpe fails to appear on the 1911 census, while Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (the same suffragette who would later die trampled by the King’s horse) hid in a House of Commons cupboard on census night so that became her ‘address’ for the evening. However the spelling of her name recorded by the enumerator is incorrect, making her Davidson, not Davison.

Emily Wilding Davison census record from her night in the Houses of Parliament.

During the 1991 tumultuous Poll Tax debates, over one million people evaded their census returns for fear it would be used in enforcing the new tax.

The 2001 census was the first to ask a person’s religion resulting in a global movement later referred to as the ‘Jedi census phenomena’.  In England and Wales 390,000 people listed Jedi Knight under their religion with ‘Jedi’ becoming the fourth largest recorded religion in the UK.   John Pullinger of the ONS suspected the campaign actually had a positive effect because it;

“Encouraged people to complete their forms and help us to get the best possible overall response”[4] especially in the late teen and early twenties age range.

Census data is incredible popular with researchers of family history, shown to be used regularly by genealogy TV shows including ‘Who Do You Think You Are’.

 “The 1911 Census website, run by the National Archives, received a staggering 22million page views within the first two days of its launch and 24 million searched in the opening month”

The Office of National Statistics

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic the England and Wales 2021 census will be digital, with Scotland’s census taking place in 2022.  It is yet to be determined if a digital count will continue in the next decade, but if it does it means we will lose some of the ephemeral aspects that older censuses hold.  Our ancestor’s handwriting will be replaced with typed text, and hand written notes forced into the margins will no longer appear.

If you are interested in learning how to access and use census data for the purposes of family history research we have a Census research guide or you can join our mailing list by contacting us at localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk where we will email you with dates of our upcoming Family History learning sessions.

Census Timeline – some highlights

The census recorded everyone who slept in the house on census night, visitors included.

1801First few censuses were mainly population headcounts
1841Name, occupation and age recorded. Over 15s to be rounded down to the nearest 5 years
1851Marital status, place of birth and relationship to the head of the household recorded, along with any disabilities
1861Shipping schedules are used to record British vessels anywhere at sea
1871Economic status recorded along with disabilities using terminology not acceptable in today’s society
1901Number of rooms in dwelling
1911Householders own handwriting is shown. Length of marriage, children born alive, still living or deceased.  Final column labelled ‘Infirmity’ using terminology not acceptable in today’s society
1921Place of work/industry and divorce status recorded
1941No census due to WWII. Instead there is the 1939 Register created at outbreak of WWII which acts as a census substitute. This is available on Ancestry.
1951Household amenities recorded
1991Ethnic group recorded along with long-term limiting illness and central heating
2001Religion included on the main census for the first time
2011Civil partnerships recorded
2021Covid-19 pandemic leads to first digital census in England & Wales. Scottish census delayed until 2022.  Voluntary questions for the over 16s included covering sexual orientation and if the respondent identifies with their birth-assigned gender

Below are links to Secret Library Leeds articles that use Census data in their research.

Census Records on Ancestry

Ancestry for All


[1] 1891 Census – Leeds: Lists of Jewish Residents (1994) LP 929.3 FRE

[2] Leeds Jews in the 1901 Census: A Demographic Portrait of an Immigrant Community (2002) LP 305.8 FRE

[3] Leeds and Its Jewish Community: A History (2019) L 305.8 FRA

[4] Jedi There Are

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