13/02/2015
Share this story Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

How to use census records for family tree research

aca56a5f-af01-4a06-bc58-5563530469ef

Find out how to use census records for family tree research, in our guide to what the census can tell you about your ancestors, and how to use the census. New to family history? Download our digital guide How to Start Your Family Tree.

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

What can the census tell you?

Census records 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 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!

Pay-per-view/subscription sites

Census records 1841-1911 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.

It’s also worth 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.

A handy site for learning about the history of the census is www.histpop.org.

Remember, there are some missing returns so you are not always guaranteed to find your ancestor, 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 history using the 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.

The census records that we can search are gems for genealogists, however, and make tracing our ancestors through the Victorian era a delight, giving us an insight to each of our ancestor’s households, and also to the communities they lived in too (take a peek at the families listed next to yours on the census, and you’ll be finding out about their neighbours). So enjoy the search and see which ancestors you can find in the census.

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.

More bitesize family history

 

Back to "Getting Started" Category

13/02/2015 Share this story   Share on Facebook icon Share on Twitter icon Share on Pinterest icon Share on Google Plus icon Share on Linked In icon Share via Email icon

Recent Updates

3 top free websites for tracing Jewish ancestry

Millions of families across the world will be remembering Jewish victims of Nazi persecution as we mark ...


Top online family history record releases of 2018

This year has been a good one for genealogists everywhere, with new records released online on a weekly ...


Finding 'lost' family members - DNA case study

Pauline Ocimek took a DNA test and thanks to a DNA match, was contacted by a Polish cousin, leading to her ...


How do I start a family tree from scratch?

Would you like to start a family tree and find your ancestors but don’t have much to go in the way of names ...


Other Articles

Discover prisoners and victims connected with Newgate Prison through new release from TheGenealogist

Details of almost 150,000 prisoners locked up in London's feared Newgate Prison have been added to the ...


Grave matters - how and why to 'kill off' your ancestors

In this latest blog, Paul Chiddicks takes a look at how and why you should obtain a death certificate for ...


FindMyPast releases marriage licences from as early as 1115 for 15 English counties

Marriage licences dating from the twelfth century through to 1906 for fifteen English counties have this week ...


Discovering my Scottish roots - DNA case study

In our new series on DNA and family tree research, Eleanor shares her story of how her DNA test results led ...