What You Can Learn From British Census Records
The first British census to ask detailed questions about individuals, the 1841 census contains a bit less information than subsequent censuses. For each individual enumerated in 1841, you can find the full name, age (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.
The questions asked in the 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911 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.
Census DatesThe actual census date varied from census to census, but is important in helping to determine an individual's probably age. The dates of the censuses are as follows:
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 & WalesMicrofilm copies of the 1841-1891 British censuses are available at the Family History Library (FHL) and through its numerous branch Family History Centers (FHCs). Surname indexes are available for much of the 1851 census, and the entire 1881 census.
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 those digitized census images does require a subscription to FindMyPast.co.uk.
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 1841-1901. FindMyPast also offers fee-based access to available British national census records from 1841-1901, with access to the 1911 British Census available as a separate stand-alone or pay-per-view subscription. The 1911 British Census is also available as a standalone PayAsYouGo site at 1911census.co.uk.
The 1939 National RegisterConducted on 29 September 1939, this emergency census-style survey of the civilian population of England and Wales was taken in order to issue identity cards to the country's residents in response to World War II. Much like a traditional census, the Register contains a wealth of details for genealogists including name, date of birth, occupation, marriage status and address for each of the country's residents. Members of the Armed Forces were not generally listed in this Register as they had already been called up for military service. The 1939 National Register is especially important to genealogists as the 1941 Census was not conducted due to WWII and the 1931 census records were destroyed in a fire on the night of 19 December 1942, making the 1939 National Register the only complete census of the population of England and Wales between 1921 and 1951.
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