Sunday, September 4, 2011

Tracking your family through the census returns

So you've looked at all the photographs, talked to Aunt Bertha and you now know that great-granddad was born in the railway village, the next step is the census returns.

In 1800 Parliament passed the Census Act and the first official census of England and Wales took place on 10th March 1801 when results revealed the population stood at approximately 9 million.

With the exception of 1941 a census has taken place in England and Wales every ten years since then, although those between 1801-1831 were basically just a headcount and most of the statistics were eventually destroyed.

With adult ages rounded down to the nearest five years and no indication of relationship between occupants, the 1841 census can be a tricky one to navigate.

However, each subsequent census contains more fascinating information. A required field to be completed in the 1851 returns was whether any of the occupants were 'blind, deaf or idiot' while in 1871 and 1881 the required information included 'imbecile, idiot or lunatic.'

A small percentage of the population is lost for various reasons and if a person is not at home on census night it can be difficult to successfully track them down, although online name indexes have made the job considerably easier.

Is the information on the census returns accurate? For the most part yes, although there are some anomalies. In the mid Victorian period elderly people born before the introduction of civil registration and without a birth certificate to consult, were sometimes vague about their age. Not everyone knew exactly where he or she were born and might just put the area they remembered growing up in as a child. Some people, usually women, gave a lower age, particularly if they were married to a younger man, and parents often said their working children were older than they were so that an employer would pay a higher wage.

The Central Library, Regent Circus has microfiche copies of all available census returns for most of Wiltshire and the Swindon area viewable free of charge. Returns for the whole of England and Wales are also accessible online at on a pay per view system, follow the links.

Census returns for Scotland are held at the General Register Office of Scotland, for more information log onto

Unfortunately most of the Irish census returns for 1841-1891 were destroyed by fire at the Four Courts during the Irish Civil War in 1922. Check The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland on and the National Archives of Ireland on for what is available.

Census returns were traditionally taken on a Sunday night.
1841 - 6th June 1851 - 30th March 1861 - 7th April 1871 - 2nd April 1881 - 3rd April 1891 - 5th April 1901 - 31st March

Online resources

The 1841,1861 and 1871 censuses are also available by subscription on the Origins site - for more details see

Another subscription site with a wealth of information and growing by the month, is Find My Past on

Free access to the 1881 census is available on the genealogical pages of the Church of the Latter Day Saints website on

Another free access site is FreeCen available on Coverage is patchy but new data is being added regularly.

Frances Bevan

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