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The first mention of censuses is familiar to many of the Christmas stories. Caesar’s census will not help many modern family historians, but more recent ones will. Those for 19th century Britain can provide ages and place of birth, essential information for seeking births and so identifying earlier generations.

Census returns used to be regarded as the Second Port-Of-Call after General Registration Records. Now, with the 1881 and 1901 censuses fully indexed on the Internet and 1891 following close behind, and much of the 1851 census available in different published indexes and others soon to be indexed as well, they can often represent the first and easiest way of tracing a family tree back into the 19th century.

From 1851 to 1901, census returns provide ancestors’ names, relationships to others in the same household, ages and places of birth, With good fortune, you may be able to find your grandparent or great-grandparent with their parents in the 1901 census, then seek the same family 20 years earlier in the 1881 census, followed by a hop back to the preceding generation in the 1851 census. At that point (and with good fortune still attending), you will find the names of your forebears who were born in the early 19th or even late 18th centuries, whose baptisms can be sought in parish registers.

In practice, you are unlikely to be able to perform these genealogical gymnastics using censuses in isolation. To be sure you have traced the right line, you will need General Registration records as well. Both categories of records complement each other to help you build up details of your ancestors’ lives. Used together, they can enable you to trace a fully proven family tree back to the early 19th century.


Each enumeration book starts with a brief description of the area covered, usually street by street, and includes details of the parish, town or borough. Censuses provide a splendid snap-shot of your family on a specific evening in the past showing your ancestors in the context of their family, extended family and neighbourhood. But do remember that the records are just that. If someone was away from the household, even for just that one night, they were supposed to be enumerated where they actually were, not where they normally lived.


A few returns include more than mere head-counts. The 1821 Hackney returns were found in a cupboard in St John's church, Hackney and have been published by the East of London FHS as Parish Returns Series no. 2 part 1, Hackney 1821. The returns list heads of households only, even if several households were in one house.


The 1831 returns for Hackney survive as well and have been indexed J. Chaudhuri's Hackney Street Directory 1831 (East of London FHS, 2001), listing head of household by name, with their occupation and the occupations but not names of the other inhabitants. Originals for both are in the Hackney Borough Archives. For details of other surviving early censuses.


Most of these returns survive. They give:

· Address. This may be precise, or simply a street name or even just the name of the village, with each house numbered sequentially as the enumerator walked around.

· Name of each person in the household. Middle names or initials were not to be recorded.

· Age. The ages of those under 16 were recorded precisely, and the ages of those over 16 were rounded down to the nearest round five years. Thus, people aged 50 to 54 were all to be recorded as 50. Luckily, some enumerators failed to heed this and wrote down the exact ages.

· Occupation.

· Whether the person was born in the same county. Usually ‘Y’ for yes and ‘N’ for no, or ‘NK’ for not known. If the birth was outside England and Wales, the abbreviations were ‘S’ for Scotland, ‘T’ for Ireland or ‘F’ for ‘foreign parts’ the rest of the world!

Relationships were not stated, and should not be assumed: two 50 year-olds of the opposite sex and a 20-year-old could be husband, wife and child, or brother, sister and a child of one of their cousins or one of many other possible permutations.

1851-1901 CENSUSES

These are broadly similar in their detail and survive almost complete.

They give:

· Address. As of 1841. In 1891 and 1901, the number of rooms occupied, if less than five, was recorded. Double dashes indicate the break between buildings; single dashes indicate the break between different households in the same building.

· Name of each person in the household. Initials of middle names could be and often were recorded.

· Relationship to the head of the household. Usually wife, son or daughter, but also step-child, in-laws, servants and, if you are very lucky, parents or grandparents. Sometimes the terms ‘in-law’ and ‘step-' were used differently to nowadays: a son-in-law today means the daughter's husband, but then it was sometimes used for the wife's son by a previous marriage, what we would now term a ‘step-son’, and vice versa.

· Marital condition. Married, single or widowed.

· Age. Ages were recorded precisely.

· Occupation. In 1891 and 1901, the census notes whether the person was an employee or employer and, if the latter, how many people if any, they employed. The acreage of farms was also noted.

· If working at home. This was a new column added in 1901.

· Place of birth. Recorded by parish and county. If the person was born outside England and Wales, usually only the country would be given, although sometimes you may be lucky and find the parish or nearby town stated too. If luck does not strike with the first census return you examine, try another.

· Physical and mental condition. This was a column for those who were blind, deaf and dumb. Further categories, ‘imbecile or an idiot; lunatic’ were added in 1871, subsequently changed to ‘lunatic, imbecile, feeble-minded’ in 1901.


This census should be released at the NA and FRC in 2012 and cannot be searched in advance under any circumstances.


Where possible, use indexes, either online or published. The census best covered by published census indexes is the 1851 census. This is mostly covered piecemeal by locally produced indexes. It is also being re-indexed by county in the same manner as the 1881 census. To find out what published census indexes exist for your area, and where and how they can be accessed, see J. Gibson and E. Hampson’s Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians (FFHS, 2000).

In some cases, the indexes give a list of surnames and reference numbers for the original returns. In others, besides the essential reference numbers, the indexes reproduce so much information that you may be tempted not to bother checking the original returns. But by not doing so, you will almost certainly miss out on the extra details that may be vital clues and the interest of seeing the original returns for the place where your family lived and, of course, there is always the possibility that the index contains errors. Always check the originals!

Although the 1881 census is available online ( it’s earlier, microfiche counterpart is in some ways easier to use for problem-solving. The index covers the whole of Great Britain including the Channel Islands and crews on all Royal Naval vessels, but not including Northern Ireland (whose returns do not survive). It is available county by county, complete with full indexes by name, place of birth and census place. You can, therefore:

· Lookup a surname to seek your ancestors and perhaps spot new relatives.

· Look up a place to see an alphabetical listing of those who lived there (useful if you are dealing with a very popular name).

· Lookup a birthplace to see who, in the county, was born there.

This is very useful when looking for an ancestor's siblings who have moved away from their place of birth.

Having found the relevant references, you can then look up the relevant pages of the transcript ‘as enumerated’ section. There are also indexes to boats and ships, and to institutions. Furthermore, there is also an immensely useful index, by surname and then forename, to each county.

Such indexes can save hours of precious time or help solve previously unsolvable problems. Using the 1881 and 1901 censuses especially, I have been able to find children who were away from home at boarding schools or working as servants, men who were away on census night on business (or so they presumably claimed) or in hospital or prison, and many other strays, not to mention families who were simply staying somewhere completely unexpected, including the workhouse.

In many cases, you will be able to use an index to obtain the exact reference to where your ancestors were. However, this may not be the case and you will have to search the originals. If the family lived in a small village, you can simply look through the village records and, besides finding your ancestors, you will probably see (and be able to note down) others of the same name who will probably be members of your extended family.

If the family lived in a town, you could be faced with a very lengthy search. However, as the NA provides street indexes for all towns of over 40,000 inhabitants (and many held locally for smaller towns), you can save much time by finding an address where your ancestors lived from another source (see left), and then using the street index to go straight to the night place.


Finding a village on microfilm or fiche and searching through it is quite easy. Showever, searching through a large town, which may span several piece numbers (and possibly several whole microfilms), can be extremely time-consuming, running the risk that you may become so exhausted by the work that you may quite simply miss the entry for your ancestors.

Fortunately, the NA generally provides street indexes for places with populations of over 40,000. Having found an ancestor’s address, look it up in the street index to learn the folio numbers covering the street. Each page of the Enumeration Books has a folio number, printed in the top right-hand corner of each right-hand page (not to be confused with the page numbers).

Once you find the entry you want, obtain a photocopy or write down everything, including the reference numbers, details of the parish, sub-district and so on at the top of the page, and all the information about the household. It is also worth noting the immediate neighbours: even if they have different surnames, they might turn out to be close relatives, equally, if your search fails, write down exactly what you searched so that the work can be continued another time and, of course, a negative search will at least tell you where your ancestors did not live.



· If you do not find that you are looking for, consider variant spellings. In the Mormons’ 1881 and 1851 indexes, names are recorded and indexed exactly as they appeared. Thus, after hosts of William Smithscome the William A. Smiths, William Anthony Smiths, and so on, followed by the Will Smiths and then the Wm Smiths. So too are birthplaces: ‘Kent, Canterbury’ is indexed in the birthplace index under K, a long way away from plain ‘Canterbury’. There are no magic answers here: just think of as many permutations to look up as you can, and if you do not find the direct ancestors you are seeking, look up other family members and see if their entries lead you to your forebears.

· All indexes are subject to mistakes. One reason for not being able to find an ancestor in an index is that the index might be wrong. If you are sure an ancestor should have been at a certain address, and they do not appear in a census index, check the original returns for that address anyway. The 1881 census index was compiled fairly rigorously and is usually accurate.

· The 1901 census appears to have been less carefully compiled and many omissions or mistakes have been discovered. It is only indexed online and is not always straightforward to use. The index gives names, age, county and parish where born, county and parish of residence and occupation. Once you have spotted the right person, you can download a transcription or digitised image of the relevant page. The trouble is that certain information has been deliberately left out (such as middle names and middle initials, precise address and names of other people in the household) so it is seldom entirely clear which of several possible entries may be correct. This may necessitate having to download several pages, which will immediately turn out to be irrelevant. If you know where the family lives but cannot find them in the index, you can still search the original returns at the FRC, where limited place and street indexes are now available.

· Surnames are also indexed as they appear. If you cannot find your ancestor under the spelling you thought, make a search using forename, age or place of birth and see if the right person comes up under a variant spelling of the surname. For example, if ‘James Dinnie’ age 24, born in Kirkintilloch does not appear, type in James, 24, Kirkintilloch and possibilities may appear including (say) James Dinny, who would probably be your man.

· Equally, beware variants in place names. If the county of birth was transcribed as Cambridge, it will not appear if you type in Cambridgeshire, nor will ‘Leighton’ appear if you type ‘Leyton’, or ‘Oxon’ for ‘Oxfordshire’: be prepared to try as many possible variants as you can think of.


· There will be times when you do not know the exact address, although you will know or suspect roughly where in a town an ancestor lived, This can be especially true when working without the aid of indexes, If this happens to you, use a contemporary map to find the names of the Streets, locate each one using street indexes, and search them thoroughly.

· Once you have found the entry you want, you may still experience some problems. Almost all records used in family history are likely to be inaccurate, but censuses are among the worst. The reason for this is simple: if you ask people a number of fairly intrusive questions, they are unlikely to be desperately concerned about giving correct answers People were and continue to be highly suspicious of the government’s reasons for wanting to know anything about them at all and, in the 19th century, many poorer people were (not always unjustly) afraid that, if they owned up to have come from somewhere else, they would be ordered to return thence. Therefore, the most common answer enumerators received to the question ‘Where were you born?’ would have been a blunt ‘Here!’.

· Places of birth could be wrong for other reasons too. Someone who was born in Oxford but grew up from an early age in Cambridge might very well think that the latter was their birthplace. People also tended to generalise. If someone was born in the tiny village of Sturry near Canterbury and then moved away, they would probably tell everyone they were from Canterbury, and this is what might then be recorded on a census form (and, incidentally, in the birthplace index of the 1881 and similar 185] census indexes).

· The enumeration of people at sea was very complicated, but fortunately there is an index to the 1861 maritime returns produced by the Mormons, available at the FRC. For 1851, 1871 and 1891 censuses there is a NA index to the ships, so if you know the name of the ship your ancestor was on, you should be able to find the appropriate census entry. For 188] and 1901, sailors are included in the main name index, making searching relatively easy.

· Incorrect details given in the first place. Information about the family was usually supplied by only one person, but not necessarily the head of the household, a child might supply information about their parents and siblings, and there are cases when the task seems to have been delegated to servants or even the lodger. No wonder details were sometimes inaccurate. Ages could also be wrong when people did not want to admit to being as old or as young as they really were. In 1876 it comes compulsory for children under 13 to go to school. However, many hard-up parents still sent their children out to work and lied to the enumerators, saying their children were ‘scholars’, the standard term for a child at school when they were, in fact, out at work every day and receiving no education at all.

· Greater inaccuracies arose when institutions were enumerated. In some cases, prison governors simply noted down the inmates’ initials.

· Relationships to the head of the household were sometimes given inaccurately or falsely. The illegitimate son of the head of the household's daughter might end up being enumerated as the head's youngest son.

· Addresses can cause problems, not least because streets could be renamed. House numbering was virtually unknown in rural areas and, when they were used in towns, they would change as extra houses were built in streets. Therefore, if your ancestors are not at the house number you expected, check the rest of the street, and if they are not there, look around the area or examine maps and contemporary street directories.

· Related problems arise when houses had doors on two different streets, thus giving the house two potential addresses. This is another area in which studying a map can suggest different solutions to the problem of hot finding your ancestors where you expected them to be.

· When using the censuses to ascertain where someone was born before 1837, bear in mind that their place of birth might not be the same as their place of baptism. Wives often went home to their mothers to give birth to their first child, but the child's baptism would usually be in the wife's new parish of residence.

Author: Navin Kumar Jaggi

Co-Author: Gurmeet Singh Jaggi


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