Census records and how to use them

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Many E-bayers sell census searches  This guide will help you understand the census system and explain what information you can hope to find from buying a census search.

The English government started taking census in 1801, but the first census that is useful for family history is 1841, when names were recorded.  A census has been taken every ten years since (except 1941).  Census records are now available for 1841 to 1901 and cover England, Wales, Isle of Man and Channel Islands.

The dates the census were taken are below:

1841 - 6 June 1841

1851 - 30 March 1851

1861 - 7 April 1861

1871 - 2 April 1871

1881 - 3 April 1881

1891 - 5 April 1891

1901 - 31 March 1901

For 1841, the following information was requested:

  • Name of street, place, road etc.
  • House number or name
  • Name of each person that had spent the night in that household
  • Age (the ages of people over 15 were usually rounded down the the nearest 5 years e.g. someone who was actually 24 years old would have their aged listed as 20)
  • Sex (indicated by which column the age is recorded in)
  • Profession or occupation
  • Where born

From 1851, the age at last birthday was recorded.

Several columns were added in time and by 1901, the following information was requested:

  • name of street, avenue, road etc
  • house number or name
  • whether or not the house was inhabited
  • number of rooms occupied if less than five
  • name of each person that had spent the night in that household
  • relationship of person to the head of the family
  • each person's marital status
  • age at last birthday
  • sex (indicated by which column the age is recorded in)
  • each person's occupation
  • whether they are employer or employee or neither
  • person's place of birth
  • whether deaf, dumb, blind or lunatic.

So the census is a good place to start your research.  You can search for one person and often find either their siblings and parents or their spouse and children.

If you find a young person with their parents, you then have the parents ages and place of birth.  You then have the information needed to trace the parents marriage and birth certificates.

Apart from the actual facts found, the census records can help you build up a picture of your ancestors lives.  You can trace their movements and see how their occupations changed over the years.

The census records are not infallible and mistakes have occured in transcribing.  Names were also spelt incorrectly on the original records, particularly if the householder could not write and the enumerator filled in the details.  However, even if a name has been spelt incorrectly, it is still possible to trace a person with a bit of determination and lateral thinking.

Once you have started collecting few census records, it is a good idea to start competing a checklist  This makes it easier to keep track of which census records you already have and which ones you are missing.




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