How to use census records to find your British ancestors
Want to know where your British 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 British 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.
What can the British census tell you?
Census records for Britain 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.
Use the British census to corroborate facts on BMD certificates and vice-versa – you can work out when children were born, or a parent died or remarried, and much more. Be wary though and use ‘wild cards’ in your searches – many of our ancestors couldn’t read or write, so enumerators may have guessed at how to spell names, or couples may have lied about being married to cover up illegitimacy or another family scandal.
The censuses were taken every 10 years, and surviving censuses for England, Wales and Scotland date from 1841 to 1911. 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!
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.
Remember, there are some missing returns so you are not always guaranteed to find your British ancestors, or they may have emigrated, been fishermen away at sea or soldiering in the Empire (the British Army overseas was not included in the census until 1911). But then, at least you will have other fascinating leads to follow!
How to research your family tree using the British 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.
For many of your ancestors, the progress backwards through the decades should be straightforward and rewarding. However, you may need to put on your thinking cap to locate some of your forebears, so here are some tips to help you:
- Watch out for transcription errors. The old handwriting on the census forms can be hard to read, and can result in mis-spellings in the census indexes, so if you can’t find an ancestor, try searching spelling variations of their name
- On census night, the name of every person staying the night was supposed to have been recorded. However, unfortunately some people were missed off – while others were recorded as being in two places!
- If you can’t find an ancestor at home with their family, think where else they may be: serving overseas in the forces, in prison, the workhouse or at a boarding school or hospital perhaps?
When was the census?
Here are the dates that the censuses were taken:
- 6 June 1841
- 30 March 1851
- 7 April 1861
- 2 April 1871
- 3 April 1881
- 5 April 1891
- 31 March 1901
- 2 April 1911
The most recent census that we have to search is the 1911 Census; the 1921 Census is not yet available for England, Wales or Scotland for family historians to search, the 1931 Census was destroyed by fire in World War II, and a census was not taken in 1941 as Britain was at war. As a result, to find ancestors in the 20th century we have to think of alternative sources, such as electoral rolls, directories and phone books. Don’t forget to ask the older members of your family tree, as they may be able to help you fill in the details for earlier in the 20th century too.
How to use the census for family history in 3 easy steps
- Have a go on all the census websites, especially if you have a ‘missing ancestor’, as each have different search facilities and may have transcribed surnames or even place names in various ways. You may hit the jackpot!
- Less is more: insert as few details as possible, even just a first name together with age and place of birth, in case the surname has been misspelt or is illegible.
- Trawl through census pages for the surrounding areas to gain an insight into where your ancestors lived, local occupations and facilities. You may find nearby relatives you didn’t know existed, or neighbours whose names appear on BMD certificates.