Using the Census
Taking census began in England and Wales in 1801, but these ten-yearly head counts don’t come into their own as a source for family history until 1841, when the first census to solicit biographical details about the populace took place.
Except in 1941, when war made it impossible, this process has been repeated every ten years since. To protect people’s privacy, census records are closed for 100 years, so the most recent one currently available to view is that for 1901.
This offers family historians an incredible 60-year window in which to plot the ever-evolving lives of their predecessors.
In the 1841 census, everyone over 15 years of age had their age rounded down to the nearest five years. So, a person aged 64 would appear as 60; someone of 39 as 35.
This makes it much more difficult to use this information to calculate a person’s year of birth with any degree of accuracy.
What census documents reveal
Though undeniably useful, the 1841 records aren’t hugely informative, recording only the full name, age, gender and occupation of each individual, plus whether they were born in the country.
From 1851 the picture is more complete, with full name, precise age, marital status, gender, occupation, parish and county of birth of every person in the household and – crucially – their relationship to the head of the household.
When you find a potential family in any year, cross-reference the information on the census with what you have gleaned from the GRO indexes – do the names, ages and dates match up? If not, you need to discover why not before you can progress further.
Consulting the census: online
Seeking out your ancestors in the census is easiest online as there are myriad websites offering census searching, and the terms you can use for your search varies at each.
The most complete collection is at www.ancestry.co.uk, which offers subscribers indexes and images for all the useful UK census years, searchable by name. Click here to start your search.
Consulting the census: in person
Although armchair research is certainly appealing, it’s not your only option. You can also access the records at various archives and repositories.
Those for England and Wales are available on microfilm at the National Archives, London; Scottish records are at Edinburgh’s New Register House; and surviving Irish records (1901 and 1911 are largely complete) are at the National Archives in Dublin, with copies at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, Belfast.
You’ll also find census material at family history centres run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, plus regionally relevant copies at local county record offices.