How to find your UK ancestors on the census

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01 January 2021
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The census is a key resource for family history - find out what years the UK census was taken, which census records are free to search and what information is on each census with our get-started guide.

Want to know where your UK ancestors came from and what their lives were like? Read our guide to using the census to trace your family tree.

Census records are invaluable for tracing your UK ancestors through Victorian times and onwards. The census returns of 1841-1911 for England, Wales and Scotland are available online and can give you a unique insight into your ancestors’ lives every 10 years.

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What can the UK censuses tell you?

Census records for the UK can give you an indication of where family members were born before the introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths (BMDs: 1837 in England and Wales, 1855 in Scotland and 1864 in Ireland), so are useful in that respect too.

What years was the UK census taken?

The censuses were taken every 10 years, and surviving censuses for England, Wales and Scotland date from 1841 to 1911.

Here are the dates that the censuses were taken:

The most recent census that we have to search is the 1911 Census. The 1921 Census for Scotland is due to be released in the latter half of 2022 and the England and Wales census will be released on 6 January 2022

QUICK LINK: What information does the 1921 Census contain?

For Ireland, sadly the story is not as simple as many of the earlier censuses have not survived – only the 1901 and 1911 Censuses survive in entirety for Ireland – but at least these surviving two censuses are free to use!


Where can I find the UK census online?

Census records for 1841 to 1911 for England and Wales are available on the pay-per-view/commercial websites: findmypast.co.uk, Ancestry and TheGenealogist, UK Census Online and Genes Reunited.

Do also try searching the free website, www.freecen.org.uk, an ongoing voluntary project to transcribe the 1841-1891 Censuses. Indexes 1841-1911 are also freely searchable on Family Search, with links to findmypast.co.uk where you can pay to view original images.

Scottish censuses 1841-1911 are available pay-per-view at ScotlandsPeople and the Irish 1901 and 1911 Censuses can be found, for free, at www.census.nationalarchives.ie.

How to research your family tree using the UK census

When tracing your ancestors it’s best practice to work backwards through the generations, meaning that for ancestors in England, Wales and Scotland, you’ll look at the 1911 Census, then the 1901, 1891, etc, back to 1841. This is to help ensure that you research your own ancestors, and don’t end up climbing up the wrong family tree.

To find out more about the census records, sign up for our free weekly email alerts for news, tips, record release round-ups and lots more!