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Researching Ancestors in the British Census

Searching the Census of England and Wales

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A census of the population of England and Wales has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 (when no census was taken due to World War II). The censuses conducted prior to 1841 were basically statistical in nature, not even preserving the name of the head of household. Therefore, the first of these census enumerations of much use for tracing your ancestors is the British census of 1841. To protect the privacy of living individuals, the most recent census to be released to the public for England, Scotland and Wales is the 1911 census.

What You Can Learn From British Census Records

1841
The 1841 British census, the first British census to ask detailed questions about individuals, 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.

1851-1911
The questions asked in the 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, and 1901 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.

  • 1851 - This census additionally recorded whether an individual was blind, deaf or an idiot; tradesmen usually identified as master, journeyman or apprentice; the numbers of employees of a master.
  • 1861 & 1871 - These two census enumerations additionally asked whether a person was imbecile, idiot or lunatic.
  • 1881 & 1891 - The number of rooms occupied by a family if less than 5 was also recorded, as was whether a working person was an employer, employee or neither.
  • 1901 - The employer/employee question added in 1881 remained, with the addition of recording those working at home. Four categories of disability were recorded: deaf and dumb; blind; lunatic; and imbecile or feeble minded.
  • 1911 - The first census for which the original household schedules were not destroyed once details had been transferred into the enumerators’ summary books. For 1911 both the original census surveys filled out in your ancestor’s own hand (complete with mistakes and additional comments) and the traditional edited enumerators’ summary are available. An infirmity column allowed reporting of family illnesses and conditions, and the age at which these began. Details of children born to women in prison who were aged three or under at the time of the census were also recorded.

Census Dates

The 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 & Wales

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 the digitized census images does require a subscription to FindMyPast.co.uk or a worldwide subscription to FindMyPast.com

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 1841-1911. FindMyPast also offers fee-based access to available British national census records from 1841-1911. The 1911 British Census can also be accessed as a standalone PayAsYouGo site at 1911census.co.uk.

The 1939 National Register

Conducted 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

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