Welcome to week four of my ‘Start Your Family Tree’ series. As promised last week, I want to spend this week looking at census records.


I’m sure some of you will already have come across them as you were looking at your Ancestry ‘hints’ in week two.

However, the better you understand census records, the more likely you are to find family members in them.

In the UK, the government has taken a census of its population every ten years since 1801 (minus 1941 for obvious reasons).

The first censuses aren’t of much use to family historians because the enumerators weren’t asked to collect names, just data (although in some lucky areas there are surviving records that did include names – you can’t stop an enthusiastic enumerator!).

The first census that is generally used by family historians is the 1841 census. However, I’m going to start with the most recent census you can access, the 1911 census, as you will be working backwards in time.

The 1911 census looks different to other censuses you can view online because it is the only one where the actual forms filled in by the households have survived. With other censuses, you see the forms compiled by the enumerators based on house to house interviews and household schedules. Although the records look different, a lot of the information collected in 1911 was similar to that in previous decades e.g. name, age, relationship to head of household, occupation and place of birth.

One of the big differences is that in 1911 married couples were asked how long they had been married for, how many children they had had in that marriage and how many of those children were still alive. This can be a useful way to uncover ‘hidden’ siblings - those who were born and also died between censuses.

More like this
Census 1911

A household schedule from 1911 showing the couple had previously lost a child. The new baby is described as a ‘suffragist’!

Some people were confused by the form and filled in how many children they had had, including those from previous marriages, so allow for some discrepancies.

From 1901 down to 1851 the census forms look fairly similar. Questions were adapted each decade but the basics stayed the same. A double slash (\) between two names marks the end of one household and the start of the next. If a second household were living in the same house, usually sharing facilities, this would then be marked by a single slash (/).

Census 1891

An example from the 1891 census. The crosses and scribbles added by those collating the data can sometimes be confusing

The 1841 census is less informative than later censuses and doesn’t look like later records. First of all, although you will get names, you aren’t told their relationship within the household. You can assume that the first name is the head of the household and ages can usually give you some idea as to relationships (if a woman of a similar age appears after a male head of household, it is likely to be his wife, but make sure you check other evidence, because it could possibly be a sister).

Census 1841

The 1841 census was completed in pencil making it sometimes difficult to read

Another area of confusion that comes with the 1841 census is age. Family historians often use the age given on a census to try and calculate when someone was born so they can find a birth record. Unfortunately, with the 1841 census, the enumerators were told to round down the ages of anyone over 15 to the nearest 5. So, whether someone was 41 or 44, they would be listed as 40. Those under 15 were listed with their exact age. In reality enumerators frequently tripped up on the rules (as my example above shows) so take all ages with a pinch of salt.

A fascinating column in all censuses is the ‘Occupation’ column because it gives us an insight into the lives of our ancestors. Later censuses often include more detail in this column but in 1841 there wasn’t much space and so an agreed shorthand was used. Common examples are F.S. and M.S. for female and male servant (see example above where Sarah Bird is described as F.S.) and Ag Lab for agricultural labourer. A list of common abbreviations can be found here. Many of these abbreviations carried on into later censuses so it is worth getting to know them.

1841 is also different to other censuses as it didn’t ask a very clear question about where people were born. They just had to say whether they were born in the county where they were being enumerated or not. They also had to say whether they were born in Scotland, Ireland or ‘Foreign Parts’ and you will see an S, I or F there if that is the case. In the example above you can see that this column has actually been used by a clerk for tallying responses. You will often find random marks in columns that were rarely used (I’ve come across all sorts of ticks and crosses in later disability columns) as well as names, ages or occupations crossed through. These were working documents used to compile statistics and these marks can usually be ignored.

How to access the census

If you have taken out a paid subscription to Ancestry, then access to the censuses for England and Wales from 1841-1911 is included. Subscribers can also access a transcription of the Scottish censuses from 1840-1901 but for full access of Scottish censuses up to 1911, including images, you will have to visit the ScotlandsPeople pay-per-view website.

For those watching their pennies, there are a number of free routes you can explore. Firstly, there are transcriptions of all of the censuses (including Scotland up to 1901) on FamilySearch. Census records for a number of regions and years have also been transcribed by volunteers on FreeCEN. Both of these options don’t link to images of the original records so you have to take the transcriptions on faith.

TheGenealogist is currently offering free access during lockdown to the 1911, 1901 and 1891 censuses if you register with their site. Although this website doesn’t have the number of records offered by Ancestry or Findmypast it does have an excellent search function for its censuses. It’s one that I use all the time.

On top of that, the 1881 census for England and Wales is free on Ancestry meaning you can get four decades of free census records with images. I’ve also been told recently by a reader, Kim Tozer, that some libraries are allowing members to access Ancestry Library Edition from their homes during lockdown. The Library Edition is slightly different to the home version of Ancestry. You can’t build your tree on it and it doesn’t have all of the same records, but it does have census records (you just won’t be able to attach them to your tree in the same way).


For Irish ancestors, most 19th century census records have not survived but the 1901 and 1911 censuses are freely available at the National Archives of Ireland website.

Quick tips for searching the census

Helpful though Ancestry hints can be for finding people on the census you will find that some people ‘disappear’ and can’t be found in some decades, so I’m going to share five quick tips that might help to flush them out!

One Try different transcriptions. You will have seen yourself how difficult old handwriting can be to read sometimes. When you are searching, you are using a database created by people trying to work out what those scribbles say. Trying a different website can be like asking for a second opinion.

Two Play around with putting in less or different information. You may know that your ancestor was born in 1880 but, if a transcriber has misread 11 for 71 in the 1891 census the search results will exclude your ancestor. If they have an unusual name (first or surname) it is more likely to be mistranscribed, so try a search without it but include other details.

Three Search for other people you might expect in the household for example siblings, parents, spouse, children etc.

Four Check out any addresses you know they lived at. People moved around a lot in the 19th century, particularly in the poorer parts of cities, but if you have a birth or marriage record near to the census date, check what address was provided.

Five Keep in mind that someone might have died, or a woman might have got married, during the decade since they were last enumerated. A widow might remarry even quite late in life so don’t assume you are looking for a death record if she disappears from the census. It might be a marriage record and change of name that you need to uncover.

I hope this has been helpful. Thank you to everyone who has been in touch to say they are following this lockdown project. Do share any success stories or questions with me via sarah.williams@immediate.co.uk. Until then, happy hunting and see you next week!