Tracing your ancestors using the census

The next major tool for fleshing out your family tree is the census.

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The next major tool for fleshing out your family tree is the census.


Census forms were completed by each household on a specific night every 10 years from 1801, however the eight returns from 1841 are the most detailed that are available to search on a national level. There is a 100-year closure ruling on the census, so the 1911 returns were most recently opened to the public.

The returns from 1841 to 1911 have been scanned and indexed by name online, providing a snapshot of the household at each property on a particular evening. The original forms were collected and transcribed by an enumerator, and bound into books, arranged geographically by district.

The arrangement reflects the route the enumerator took as he did his rounds collecting completed forms. In theory, even if your ancestors were prisoners, asylum inmates or fairground workers living in a caravan, they should have been included.

1801 – 1831

The first census taken on 10 March 1801 during the Napoleonic Wars was intended to gather statistical information to manage increasing demand for food and gauge how many men were of military age. Censuses between 1801 and 1831 were not very detailed and only fragments of enumerators’ notes about individual households survive, like the 1801 and 1821 censuses of Dartford that can be searched on Findmypast.

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The 1841 census was the first to systematically list the names of everyone in the country and is the earliest nationwide collection that remains largely intact.

For the first time in 1841 the forms recorded the names of everybody at each address, including children. Householders were asked to describe the occupations of people staying at their property. This could include servants, commonly noted in the profession column as M.S. or F.S. for male or female servant, so you could find your ancestor residing with an employer rather than their family.

Ages are also listed, but rounded down to the nearest five years for people over the age of 15. A note was made of whether or not each person was born in the county in which they resided, though precise places of birth were not requested until the next census in 1851.

1851 – 1901
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The censuses gradually became more detailed with every decade that passed. Marital statuses were given from 1851, as well as the relationship between each person and the head of the household. Your ancestor may have been boarding at an address temporarily or have had lots of visitors staying on 30 March 1851. Ages also became more accurate.

Increasingly intrusive enquiries were made, asking in 1851 and 1861 if people were ‘blind or deaf-and-dumb’ and from 1871 whether anyone was deemed to be a ‘lunatic, imbecile or idiot’, by Victorian standards of course! Additional questions were asked about employment status from 1891, defining whether a person was self-employed ‘on their own account’, an employer, or employed by someone else.

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The 1911 census is the most detailed of them all, and is really where your search should begin so that you can work gradually back through the earlier records. On the 1911 census we discover how long our ancestors have been married, how many children they have had and whether any have died. This can be used alongside the marriage, birth and death records to paint a vivid picture of our Edwardian ancestors’ lives.

For the first time in 1911 we see the original forms completed in the householder’s own handwriting, rather than a transcribed copy from the enumerator’s book. John Underwood, a 47-year-old butcher from Hastings, admitted in the health conditions column that he was ‘bad-tempered’, his wife was ‘long-tongued’ and their five children were ‘quarrelsome’, ‘stubborn’, ‘greedy’, ‘vain’ and ‘noisy’! Notes like this may have been jokingly scribbled on earlier censuses but unfortunately the original forms no longer survive.

Searching for people on the census

The digitisation of the censuses makes it so much easier to find people, since we can search by name, age, place of birth and residence, and cross-reference with the names of relatives who should be in the same house. Every now and then a family seems to just disappear though, and you have to work hard to find them. This happens for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the census officials who collected the pre-1911 forms and transferred the information into the census books may have misread your ancestor’s handwriting. Then there’s the added risk that the online indexers struggled to read the enumerator’s handwriting and the digital index is not accurate. So, you have to think creatively about how the name could have been interpreted.

Your ancestor’s name may even have changed between census years. This commonly happened when a woman’s husband died, she re-married and her children temporarily adopted their stepfather’s surname. If any of your predecessors were in a prison, workhouse or other institution, they may have only been listed by their initials, which could make finding them impossible.


Some people deliberately fudged the form to evade the authorities, while the Suffragettes encouraged supporters to boycott the 1911 census altogether. If you really can’t find your family on a UK census return, though, it might just be possible they were abroad. In most cases you should be able to find your ancestors on the census without too much trouble, but where there are gaps, other records may help.

From the Show: Sheila Hancock

Sheila Hancock’s ancestor Hamnet Zurhorst was difficult to find on the 1891 census because he had such an unusual name, which transcribers struggled to interpret. His name is in fact indexed as ‘Hammett Gurharst’ on Most of the genealogy websites let you easily report an error if you locate an ancestor whose name has been inaccurately transcribed, so that the index can be corrected.

Following several failed attempts to locate him, we eventually found Hamnet by searching for a first name only, using wildcards, leaving the surname blank but including his year of birth. Inserting an asterisk in place of the ‘n’ and after the ‘t’ in Hamnet (Ham*et*) searched for alternative spellings, as his name was sometimes spelled ‘Hammett’. Using this method we found him living with his unmarried daughter at Penn’s Alms Houses in Greenwich.

Sheila owned a copy of a portrait dated to the 1830s, said to be ‘Madam Zurhorst’, so the information in the census returns helped her to trace Hamnet’s line back another generation to try to identify this mysterious lady who was evidently better off than Hamnet was in the 1890s.