Researching Ancestors in the British Census

Searching the Census of England and Wales

Still Motion London, England
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A census of the population of England and Wales has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 (when no census was taken due to World War II). The censuses conducted prior to 1841 were basically statistical in nature, not even preserving the name of the head of household. Therefore, the first of these census enumerations of much use for tracing your ancestors is the British census of 1841. To protect the privacy of living individuals, the most recent census to be released to the public for England, Scotland and Wales is the 1911 census.

What You Can Learn From British Census Records

1841
rounded down to the nearest 5 for everyone 15 or older), sex, occupation, and whether they were born in the same county in which they were enumerated.

1851-1911
The questions asked in the 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, and 1901 census enumerations are generally the same and include the first, middle (usually just the initial), and last name of each individual; their relationship to the head of household; marital status; age at last birthday; sex; occupation; the county and parish of birth (if born in England or Wales), or the country if born elsewhere; and the full street address for each household. The birth information makes these censuses especially helpful for tracing ancestors born prior to the onset of civil registration in 1837.

  • 1851 - This census additionally recorded whether an individual was blind, deaf or an idiot; tradesmen usually identified as master, journeyman or apprentice; the numbers of employees of a master.
  • 1861 & 1871 - These two census enumerations additionally asked whether a person was imbecile, idiot or lunatic.
  • 1881 & 1891 - The number of rooms occupied by a family if less than 5 was also recorded, as was whether a working person was an employer, employee or neither.
  • 1901 - The employer/employee question added in 1881 remained, with the addition of recording those working at home. Four categories of disability were recorded: deaf and dumb; blind; lunatic; and imbecile or feeble minded.
  • 1911 - The first census for which the original household schedules were not destroyed once details had been transferred into the enumerators’ summary books. For 1911 both the original census surveys filled out in your ancestor’s own hand (complete with mistakes and additional comments) and the traditional edited enumerators’ summary are available. An infirmity column allowed reporting of family illnesses and conditions, and the age at which these began. Details of children born to women in prison who were aged three or under at the time of the census were also recorded.

    Census Dates

    1841 - 6 June
    1851 - 30 March
    1861 - 7 April
    1871 - 2 April
    1881 - 3 April
    1891 - 5 April
    1901 - 31 March
    1911 - 2 April

    Where to Find the Census for England & Wales

    Online access to digitized images of all census returns from 1841 to 1911 (including indexes) for England and Wales is available from multiple companies. Most of the records require some type of payment for access, under either a subscription or pay-per-view system. For those looking for free online access to British census records, don't miss the transcriptions of the 1841–1911 England & Wales Census available online at no charge at FamilySearch.org. These records are linked to digitized copies of the actual census pages from FindMyPast, but access to the digitized census images does require a subscription to FindMyPast.co.uk or a worldwide subscription to FindMyPast.com

    The UK National Archives offers subscription access to the complete 1901 census for England and Wales, while a subscription to British Origins includes access to the 1841, 1861 and 1871 census for England and Wales. The UK Census subscription at Ancestry.co.uk is a comprehensive online British census offering, with complete indexes and images for every national census in England, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands from 1841-1911. FindMyPast also offers fee-based access to available British national census records from 1841-1911. The 1911 British Census can also be accessed as a standalone PayAsYouGo site at 1911census.co.uk.

    The 1939 National Register

    Information from the 1939 National Register is available to applications, but only for individuals who have died and are recorded as being deceased. The application is expensive - £42 - and no money will be refunded, even if a search of the records is unsuccessful. Information can be requested on a specific individual or a specific address, and information on up to a total of 10 people residing at a single address will be provided (if you ask for this).
    NHS Information Centre - 1939 National Register Request