• The Census

    Attachment 13672Alongside the personal details of your families, one of the most useful sets of documents for you will be the Census Returns.

    The census is one of the most useful sets of records available. Placing an ancestor with their parents and siblings when they are young, or finding them in later life with a spouse and children are just a few of the things that can be discovered.

    This guide will give you more information on using these valuable sources of evidence for your research.

    How are they useful?

    Census records provide a useful framework in that they allow us to track the progress of a family over a long period of time. Sudden omissions may point towards other searches such as death records, census entries in army barracks or institutions and maritime records. Conversely, a known death or marriage between census years enables us to switch our attention to other family names. Modern websites such as Ancestry have made census access more convenient but there are mis-transcriptions aplenty which should also be borne in mind.

    The census can be the most effective way of following an ancestor who moved across the country (perhaps due to work for example). The place of birth is recorded on census returns but is lacking on many other documents. Many mariners and soldiers would simply be impossible to find easily without census returns, due to the transient nature of their employment.

    Searching the census may appear easy to do, but often an ancestor can be difficult to locate for several reasons. Mostly the problem is due to a mis-transcribed name, or errors which can occur in the original documents or when the index is compiled. It is best to view the image whenever possible to verify what has been recorded, as the index and image may have conflicting details.

    Households were supposed to fill the census forms in themselves (if they couldn't write, they asked someone else, or the enumerator filled it in to their directions the next day), but when they were collected by the enumerators, they were copied by them too on big sheets with several households. cfr 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901. The original census returns, filled in by the families themselves, were then destroyed. The 1911 census was also done this way, but it is the only census of which the original returns were for some reason not destroyed. The scanned images one can obtain are the original returns (hence spelling mistakes like 'dauthger').

    So, mistakes can be apparent in censuses because enumerators made them. The only census that cannot have mistakes of birth place or names or other things apart from spelling mistakes (that are sometimes very interesting nonetheless!) is the 1911 census, because before you is the original filled in page by one of the family, or at least (if they could not write) one filled in because of information first-hand and not copied at a desk at maybe 1 o'clock in the morning.


    Census Dates

    • 1911 ref always start RG14 - census date 2nd/3rd April
    • 1901 ref always start RG13 - census date 31st March
    • 1891 ref always start RG12 - census date 5th April
    • 1881 ref always start RG11 - census date 3rd April
    • 1871 ref always start RG10 - census date 2nd April
    • 1861 ref always start RG9 - census date 7th April
    • 1851 ref always start HO107 - census date 30th March
    • 1841 ref always start HO107 - census date 6th June


    • (Note: 1841 piece numbers 1-1465; 1851 piece numbers 1466-2531)


    What will I find?




    On each census you should find recorded: Address, name, relationship to the head of the family, marital status, age at last birthday, gender, occupation, birthplace, disability.

    Some censuses only make reference to a household number rather than a formal numbered address.

    Census records are usually transcribed for online viewing in this format:



    • Name
    • Parent or spouse names
    • Birth Year
    • Birthplace
    • Relation (not 1841)
    • Civil parish
    • County or Island (1841 census terms as born in county or out of county - OOC)


    Attachment 13543The 1841 Census did not declare relationship to head of household or marital status and was lacking in the detail of later censuses. Birthplace was not stated, other than whether or not the person was born in the county, or if not born in England/Wales then whether they were from Scotland, Ireland, or "foreign parts".

    Ages of persons over the age of 15 were supposed to have been rounded down to the nearest 5 years. For example, a man and wife aged 52 and 48 should have been recorded as aged 50 and 45. However there are many instances where the age of adults was not rounded down, or even where the age was rounded up instead of down. Ages of children below 15 were supposed to have been stated to the exact year.

    On all censuses, you may find that with institutions, small villages and hamlets, residents or inmates are recorded using just initials, age and/or a birthplace (if known) or otherwise just initials.

    Attachment 13678Each entry on a census is given a four part reference: class (RG or HO) + piece + folio + page number, which is a unique reference given to a particular page. Everyone recorded on one particular sheet will have this same code. The example below is recorded as RG13/3194/50/2. The image shows the class and piece reference found at the foot of the sheet.

    When evaluating census information it is worth remembering that they are merely a snapshot record made every ten years. Ancestors may be missing due to war or may simply have been in transit on census night and lodged somewhere.

    There is an element of inaccuracy that researchers need to factor in to their findings and they should be used with other sources of evidence to gain a fuller picture. Particular details on these records may give clues as to personal wealth and social standing e.g. when an entry declares living by own means. If you can follow the record of one person alone through the decades you can sometimes see how a person's life or career has developed e.g. at 16 a person is a groom, at 26 is a clerk, at 36 has a family, at 46 has a factory, at 56 has servants and so on.


    The Illustrated Guide to Census Returns

    By following the illustrated techniques below, you can see how to locate your ancestors in the census and follow some proven methods to help find those missing census images.



    If you still can't find those missing families, you may find these pages useful:




    Useful Resources and Websites





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