Using Census returns to fill in family history

Once you have managed to piece your family tree together back to 1911, in the UK the most useful tools for progressing your family history are the UK Censuses.  These are available online, and were held every ten years from 1841 onwards, although only the returns up to 1911 are available to researchers.  What makes the census returns especially valuable to researchers, is the fact that they show the family as a group.  Of course, if you are unlucky, your ancestor will be absent from home for the census, or will appear on one of the missing censuses.  This page on FindmyPast has a complete list of the missing pieces for each of the censuses, and it’s well worth consulting that before you begin to dig deeper in order to find an ancestor who seems elusive.

One of the first things to learn is that there may be spelling errors in the census returns.  These may be caused by an ancestor who couldn’t spell, an enumerator that couldn’t spell, or a mistake in transcribing the information on the census return on the part of one of the companies who have transcribed them. The combination may mean that your ancestor has an unrecognisable name.  You may need to look for a different family member, or use different criteria like addresses or place of birth to find them.

The second is to learn that the census wasn’t always held on the same day, and so an ancestor’s age may be more or less than 10 years different on consecutive census returns (see below).

The 1841 census is somewhat different from the others: not only were ages rounded up or down to the nearest five years, but there was a lot less information on the census.  For example, there was none about family relationships, although you can usually see how people were grouped together from the notation on the census, and no detailed information about birthplace, only a Y or an N to indicate whether a person was born in the county they are living in or not.

The other census which is completely different from the rest is the 1911 census, which was the first for which the householder filled in the forms themselves.  You might expect information to be more accurate for that reason, but this isn’t necessarily the case.  I have found examples where fathers have misspelled their children’s names, or seem to have forgotten how many children they have had.  There is some extra information about lengths of marriages and the number of surviving children on the census for 1911.

In the main, census enumerators would use one or more oblique lines to denote the ending of a family record or a collection of records for a building of multiple occupation, and sometimes these are misleading.  I have found examples of children shown as a separate record from their parents, or adding two or more families together in one record because of a lack of a line… nothing replaces making yourself familiar with the records and seeing how an enumerator behaves.  You learn to look for clues with an enumerator who was unusually lazy… the records for Market Rasen, for example, often give no clue about where in the town the record is taken – they just put Market Rasen for all the addresses.

If you are looking for a common name, or have ancestors who moved about a lot, it is especially important to note information like birthplace, profession and any other identifying information.

Dates of the censuses

The 1841 census was taken on 6 June; the 1851 census was taken on 30 March; the 1861 on 7 April; 1871 on 2 April; 1881 on 3 April; 1891 on 5 April; 1901 on 31 March; and 1911 on 2 April.

Free access

It used to be possible to gain free access to different census years on different websites, but it doesn’t seem that it is now possible to gain access to all of the UK censuses in this way.

In the UK, many libraries and research centres, like the National Archives at Kew, will grant free access to some genealogical records. There is a list on this page of archives and centres where the 1911 census can be accessed for free.

Among the records which can be searched for free on Findmypast are the 1881 census records on this page.

FreeCen have been indexing the census returns for many years.  This job is not yet complete, and so you will need to check if your location is available.

Paid access

UK paid accounts with Ancestry and Findmypast will come with access to the census returns.  Due to different transcription problems, you may find someone easier to find on one or the other set of records.  There are other places to access indexes and images, including UKcensusonline which has a useful tick chart of information to be found on the various censuses.

Years of following families through the years of the census have made me expert in finding people that others have failed to find.  If you would like me to look for your family, please use the contact me link above.

The photograph above is from the National Archive’s creative commons stream on Flickr and shows the indoor servants from Bessborough House, Piltown, Kilkenny in 1908.  The National Archive is hoping to identify some of the people in the photograph from the 1901 census return.

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