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Beginning Your Family History

Part Four: Making Sense of the Census

User Avatar Penelope Lovesy 12/05/2020 15:14:06

Did everyone have a go at searching Church records? Hopefully, you found some information and have been encouraged to research further.

This week we’ll look at the Census. This is probably my favourite resource and an important research tool as it allows you to trace family members and gives a snapshot of social history.

What is the census? The Office of National Statistics states:

Every ten years since 1801 the nation has set aside one day for the census - a count of all people and households. It is the most complete source of information about the population that we have. The latest census was held on Sunday 27 March 2011.  Every effort is made to include everyone, and that is why the census is so important. It is the only survey which provides a detailed picture of the entire population and is unique because it covers everyone at the same time and asks the same core questions everywhere.

The first national census was taken on 10 March 1801. From this date a census has been taken every 10 years, except for 1941 due to World War 2 (however, there is a 1939 register). The census has always been taken on a Sunday night as more people are likely to be at home.

Dates of the Census

1841             6 June

1851             30 March

1861             7 April

1871             2 April

1881             3 April

1891             5 April

1901             31 March

1911             2 April

Census records contain personal data. They are therefore protected and closed for 100 years.

How was the census taken?

From 1801-1831 it was taken by parish officials; only statistical summaries survive from this time. Early returns were destroyed.

From 1841 there was one enumerator (person who takes the census) per enumeration district. Districts could be a whole village or an area of a town or city. It is possible for different sides of the same street to be in different districts.

In 1841 the enumerator delivered a schedule to each household in the district a few days before census night and then collected it on the census night. 

Household heads were given detailed instructions about how to fill it in BUT bear in mind that at least 50% of the population were illiterate. They may have received help from family, neighbours or the enumerator.

The household schedules were then copied into books by the enumerator in the order that the schedules were collected. It is therefore possible to follow the path on a map, counting houses and using landmarks.

Up to 1901 the enumerator books are what we look at. In 1911 we look at the household schedule.

The 1841 census contains limited information - no addresses, no exact birthplace, no relationships. In addition, people’s ages are not exact. They are rounded down to the nearest 5.

From 1851 the census reveals much more detailed information including special returns for institutions, soldiers and seamen.

Searching the census for your ancestors can be highly rewarding. You discover a glimpse of their life on that one day every ten years.

However, there can be issues with searching the census:

Problems and Pitfalls

Handwriting/ Translation/ Transcription (Human error)

  • Illiterate householders
  • Misunderstood information
  • Transcription errors from schedule to book and transcription errors from original document to website or index
  • Often people transcribing for commercial websites have no local knowledge of place names or surnames.



  • Try a place search instead of a name search
  • Try a different website or index
  • Spelling can vary so check as many variants as possible.



  • People can lie - they can give false names, places and dates of birth
  • People may not have been aware of their exact date of birth or birthplace
  • Single mothers may have given children different surnames on different census - for example if they remarry or say they are married when they are single
  • People you expect to find with family could be in someone else’s household on the actual night of the census (e.g. relatives or neighbours)
  • People may have been on the move - to find work and sleeping outdoors or in barns. This is especially relevant for the 1841 census which was taken in June. They would not have been recorded
  • Parents sometimes didn’t enter children who had not yet been baptised. If trying to trace someone using an occupation, until 1911 there were no clear guidelines for occupation so description could change from year to year.



  • If people are missing for 10/20 years try military/war or emigration records
  • Speculate and cancel out families
  • Try searching for first names in an area, e.g. a mother and a child as a surname could have been changed/ misspelled
  • Search a street or village for clues!
  • Terms used for family relationships can be misleading, e.g. son-in-law can mean stepson.


Census Records are Incomplete

Sometimes the part of the census you need may be missing. This list shows the missing pieces: https://www.findmypast.co.uk/articles/census-for-england-wales-and-scotland-missing-pieces


Census Records Online

There are a variety of online resources offering access to the census; subscription sites and free transcriptions. First, we’ll have a look at Family Search, where you can search all available census records and see a transcription of the original for free.

Then we will explore Ancestry (if you have been able to gain access through your local library).


  • From the homepage click on search at the top and select records from the drop-down.
  • Scroll down the page to Find a Collection.
  • Click on Browse All Published Collections.
  • Click United Kingdom and Ireland.
  • Click England.
  • Click Census and Lists.

From here you will see a link for each census 1841-1911. Click on the record that you want to search and have a go. Start with 1911 and work backwards to build up your information and family groups.

Let’s have a look for Dora Grace Wilson in 1911.

  • Click England and Wales Census, 1911.
  • Enter Dora Grace Wilson into name.
  • Enter Poole into birthplace and 1895 into birth year.
  • Search.
  • Click on the top record - View.

Here you can see a transcription of the census record. Dora is 15 and living in Parkstone. Scroll down and you will see the other members of her household.  We can now add a brother to her family tree.

You can also click on related records on the right-hand side of the page and look at her on the 1901 census.

Have a go at searching the different census records. Can you find your ancestors?

Let’s look at Ancestry now, from the homepage:

  • Click on search (the search on the top bar).
  • Scroll down to by location.
  • Select England.
  • Click see more about England.
  • Click View all census and electoral rolls.
  • Select 1911 census.

Let’s recreate the search for Dora. Enter the same information into the search form and click search. Click view record for the top result (note her name has been transcribed incorrectly as Dora Gaye Wilson) and then view the image.

You can see that the original image gives even more information, the number of years Dora’s parents have been married and the number of children they have had.  You can also see the full address - Mamosa, Parkstone. 

I hope this brief run through of the census is useful and that you discover even more information about your ancestors.

Let us know if you need any help or uncover any exciting stories localhistory@bcpcouncil.gov.uk

I used a book by Edward Higgs, ‘Making Sense of the Census’ for guidance.


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