Census records are an invaluable resource for anyone tracing their family tree as they provide us with a snapshot of history at a particular point in time.
If you have so far traced your ancestors using birth, marriage and death records and you have drawn up a family chart of key dates and individuals, your next step should be searching the census returns, as this is the information that will help bring your ancestors to life.
Census returns can not only help us determine who our ancestors were, but they can also tell us:
A census return can also provide us with small details such as streets that existed that perhaps no longer exist, to large chunks of information such as the number of men, women and children in England, Wales and Scotland at that particular point in time.
As well as giving us the above useful information, the fact that census returns are taken every ten years also allows us to track the movements of our ancestors as they perhaps move house, get married, have children or even change occupations.
The 1800 Population Act initiated the holding of decennial (ten year) censuses which increased in sophistication and amount of information obtained as they developed throughout the 19th century.
However, censuses were being taken long before this, and Enumerations were even more common. Governments have long been interested in surveying their resources in land goods or people.
One of the earliest censuses must be that of the Children of Israel in 1200BC. There is also evidence of the Romans conducting censuses every 5 /14 years; sadly, however, these rarely contained lists of names.
The earliest of the surviving British population listings must be the Domesday Book, compiled between 1086 and about 1088. The exact purpose of the survey is unclear, but it was probably intended to be the basis for taxation.
The Book compares landholding and possessions under Edward the Confessor (died 1065), with the situation in 1086 under William the Conqueror.
Parts of the country were not surveyed, especially in the far north, where William the Conqueror"s authority was weak, and the returns for some large towns, including London and Winchester, were not written up into the final version.
Following the Domesday Book, many lists were made throughout the British Isles. Both the Church and the State – which at certain times were inseparable – conducted surveys of the people, mainly for raising revenue particularly in time of war or unrest.
These were mostly organised locally, covering a specific area and, where surviving, will mostly be found amongst the Quarter Sessions records in local archives and record offices.
However, by the 1790s things began to change. Britain was still in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the 1740s - the numerous inventions and techniques permanently transforming the British Isles. Britain had been at war with France for most of the 1790s, creating a real need to know exactly how many eligible fighting men there were.
It was also a time of bad harvests and food shortages. In 1798 things came to a head when Thomas Malthus published his essay on the "Principle of Population". It caused great concern by suggesting that population growth would soon outstrip supplies of food and other resources, ‘causing Britain to be hit by disease, famine and other disasters".
Frightened by this alarmist view of the future, Parliament passed the Census Act in 1800 and the first full official census in England and Wales was taken on 10 March 1801.
Information was collected from every household by the Overseers of the Poor; they were aided by constables, tithingmen, headboroughs and other officers of the peace. This first official head count revealed Britain's population to be nine million.
An army of clerks using only pens and paper processed information about every person in the land. Technology did not reach the census until 1911 when punch cards and mechanical sorting were introduced. Computers were first used in 1961 and now play an essential role.
The 1841 census is regarded as the first modern census, when the first Registrar General of England and Wales was made responsible for organising the count.
The task of counting was passed to local officers of the newly created registration service. This is the earliest census that has survived in its entirety: few of the 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses have survived the ravages of time.
1841 was the first time that the head of each household was given a form to fill in on behalf of everyone in the dwelling on a set day. This system still forms the basis of the method used today.
Since 1801 there has been a census every 10 years except for 1941, during the Second World War. Although the basic principle remains unchanged, new questions have been added whilst some have been removed. Until 1911 the Government needed to introduce a new Census Act for every census held.
Since the passage of the 1920 Census Act the law has supported census taking in Great Britain, making it possible for the Government to hold a census at any time.
Every household must now return a completed form by law. Failure to make a completed return or giving false information is now an offence, and attracted a fine of up to £1,000 by the time of the 2001 census.
The law protects the confidentiality of the census. The 1920 Census Act prohibited the unlawful disclosure of any information given in the census, determining that the information collected would only be used to produce statistics, and no information would be released which allowed the identification of any individual or household.
The census information is not available to be viewed by the public for 100 years; however, the 1911 census was released online three years early, except for some potentially sensitive information that was redacted until 2012. This information (any details of your family's health and conditions that your ancestors recorded in the 'infirmity' column of the census return) is now available to view on findmypast.
A census of the population of England, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles has been taken every 10 years since 1801, except in 1941 during the Second World War.
As census returns are subject to public closure for 100 years because of the potentially sensitive personal information they contain, the English, Welsh and Scottish census returns that are currently available to the public are as follows:
1841 - taken on 6 June 1851 - taken on 30 March 1861 - taken on 7 April 1871 - taken on 2 April 1881 - taken on 3 April 1891 - taken on 5 April 1901 - taken on 31 March 1911 - taken on 2 April
Whilst the census returns for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 were not preserved in their complete form, there are some areas where returns for these years have been found and some survive in local authority libraries and archives.
1801 - taken on 10 March 1811 - taken on 27 May 1821 - taken on 28 May 1831 - taken on 30 May
The collecting of census data was the responsibility of enumerators - a body of paid volunteers who helped the government in their statistical exercise.
Enumerators were generally members of society who were literate and had a suitable standard of education such as:
Shortly before the census date, enumerators were provided with forms - called Schedules - which they delivered to every household, hospital, ship or institution within the district under their responsibility.
The head of the house for each household (or the officer in charge of the institution or ship) was required to complete this form in time for the enumerator’s collection a few days later.
When the enumerators returned on the night of the census, they went from door to door checking and collecting the completed forms. If the forms were not completed, the enumerators would question members of the household to get the required information from them.
Once the Schedules were complete, the enumerators would copy the forms into printed books of blank census forms.
These books were then sent to the local registrars who also checked the data and forwarded it onto the central office in London, for final checking and publication as a Parliamentary Paper.
The census returns from 1801 to 1831 were taken by the government for purely statistical/headcount purposes and the details collected about individuals were mostly destroyed after they had been used.
However, this changed with the census in 1841, where set information was recorded about every person staying at an address on the night of the census.
From 1851 to 1901 details about every individual at an address were still recorded; however, further information was also collected by the enumerator, such as condition of marriage and disability. The format of the census remained largely the same throughout this time.
As with any family history records, original census returns are not free from mistakes; you should therefore keep an open mind when using the data and not believe everything you read.
Some common errors that can be found in census returns are as follows:
Errors in recording census data
As illiteracy was quite high in the 19th century, many people may have asked their friends, neighbours or even the enumerators to help fill out the forms.
In institutions or on vessels it was the person in charge of the prison or ship who completed the details on behalf of everyone in the institution or on the ship. This led to many errors in note taking and in recording the final information.
Typical mistakes were made when spelling peoples’ names, or noting their occupations, or even when recording their ages.
Whilst enumerators and the officials at institutions made mistakes when recording information, individuals who completed the forms themselves also made some errors.
This is certainly true of some people who were quite inventive about their age, or simply had only a vague notion of when they were born.
Ten years is a long time, and a lot of things happened in our ancestors’ lives between one census and another.
During this time they may have got married and re-married perhaps, resulting in a number of name changes. Alternatively, there may have been cases where they wanted to change their identity, perhaps for personal or political reasons.
You may, for example, have a bigamist in the family who changed his name to flee from a former partner. You may also have ancestors who anglicised their names over a period of time to suit the political environment.
Many people also lied about their occupations when completing census returns.
For example, in the 19th century thousands of women were prostitutes, yet this is certainly not what they recorded on their forms.
Also, whilst most children were noted as ‘scholars’ by their parents, this may have been to disguise the fact that they were breaking the law by sending their underage children out to work.
If you can’t track down James, he may be a Jim. Eminent family historian, Jeanne Bunting, points out that Aunt Patty might be listed as Martha and your Grandma, who was always called Polly, was probably Mary. Uncle Wag could be listed as Charles or Chas and Aunt Fanny as Frances.
Nicknames and diminutives can derail your family history search – a man can be William to acquaintances, Will to his friends and Billie to his mother – but what is he called in the records?
Wildcards, denoted by a *, can be used to enhance your search. If you have searched unsuccessfully for William Lancaster, you could type in Wil* Lancaster; the search will return a list of names such as Wilfred Lancaster, Willie Lancaster and Will Lancaster.
You can use two wildcards to search for a string of letters such as ill which will give you all the Bills, Wills, Williams and others. This is a particularly useful search tool as the initial letter is often misrepresented in the transcript.
When searching for your ancestors in the census records, keep an open mind as to where they may have been on the night the particular census was taken.
If you have an idea about where they lived, you should start your search with that address. If they are not recorded at that address, you should broaden your search.
A census is taken at an address, not specifically of a family or household.
When searching for your relatives, you should remember that even though your ancestor may have lived at one address, if he or she were not at home on the night of the census then they will not be included in the enumerator"s records for that address.
If they were visiting friends or relatives that evening, they may, however, be included in the census at that particular address.
Many people, particularly young, unmarried women, were in service and may be found at the residence of their employers.
You should also think about your ancestors occupations too.
If for example you know that your great-great-grandfather was a sailor, he may have actually been at sea that evening - in which case he wouldn"t be recorded on the census. However, if he was on a ship that was docked in an English port, then he should be recorded at the ship"s address - as he was there that evening - rather than at his home address.
The same situation may apply to any relatives who worked as medical staff in hospitals, or wardens in prisons, or night-workers in a factory. If they were at the institutions on the night of the census, they would be recorded at that address rather than their home address.