Most of you will know by now about the release of the 1911 census. There was a limited release (a beta test) over Christmas which was ostensibly by invitation only, although the invitations were spread quite widely. The general release was on Tuesday 13th January.

This included most English counties, and the census for Wales (including Monmouthshire), Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Royal Navy, Army overseas and some northern English counties is not yet available, but will become so in the next few months. 

The 1911 census differs from the previous censuses in that the individual pages completed by each householder have survived and form the main record. You can see either an image of this page, or a transcription, or both. Other parts of the census record, including the enumerator’s summary sheets which we are familiar with from previous censuses, will be available soon, and possibly by the time you read this. On the launch date, some of the search facilities, such as wildcard searches, were not available, but will be released progressively as the site beds down. The policy appears to be to release the census for a large part of the country, but to restrict how and how much it is used. This is to prevent the computer system being overloaded, as happened with the 1901 census launch. In the first 48 hours of the 1911 census site being available, it was accessed by 840,000 visitors who did 4.9 million searches. 

Searching the census is free, and you may find it possible to get some information without paying. To see a transcription, or an image of a census page, you have to buy units. Depending on the number bought at any one time, these cost between 8p and 12p each. To see a page image costs 30 credits (£2.40 - £3.60), while a transcription costs 10 credits (80p - £1.20). These prices will come as a nasty surprise to anyone with an “all you can eat” subscription to the older censuses, and can be compared to the £3.50 cost of a downloaded will from The National Archives or the £7 cost of a certificate of a birth, marriage or death. All use of the 1911 census is currently “Pay as you go”, but it will be possible to access the 1911 census via a Findmypast subscription in due course. The census will also be available eventually on other family history websites. 

The website at www.1911census.co.uk contains a lot of information about how the work has been done to make the 1911 census available online. There is a blog which records changes and upgrades to the site, suggests ways of resolving problems, and has a link to a video about the census. These are well worth looking at, if you can drag your self away from the excitement of finding your grandparents and other ancestors. You can save a copy of any image you view, but in addition the site remembers what you have seen, and lets you see it again without charge. 

There have been complaints about the price of the site, and about errors in transcription. I have to say that I have found without difficulty everyone I have looked for. I did find a Gwendoline transcribed as Gwerdolme, and my great-aunt Emma Homard from Winchelsea is listed as Emma Howard from Wm Chelsea. Member Joan Sparke wrote to me to say that it is sometimes necessary to buy a transcription as well as a page image to get the full postal address. She also found someone with the name Donation Bregeon, a French farm worker at an English monastery. I also understand that some of the inhabitants of Axbridge workhouse have the first name and surname transposed. I note that some of the enumerators’ books for Long Ashton and Keynsham are missing, although the household sheets should be available. 

It is worth remembering that is less than ten years since any of the censuses was available online, with a complete index. In the past, family historians had to wait many years after the release of the census on microform before indexes became available, and there were separate indexes for different parts of the country. We can now easily find our ancestors who moved around, and can do research in the comfort of our own home. 

Those with subscriptions to Ancestry (www.ancestry.co.uk) may have to wait some time before the 1911 census is available for them to search. In the meantime, Ancestry seems to have made itself unpopular with the most recent redesign of its site. It seems to be concentrating more on the novice family historian who can be seduced by the thought of putting vague details in a search box and finding results in a host of different datasets, most of them irrelevant. Personally, I like to know exactly what I am searching for and where, and this has now become more difficult. It seems to take several keystrokes to get to the search screen that I want, although I would have thought that the U.K. census and the BMD records were the most commonly used sources. If you have feelings about the new format, then do complete the questionnaire available on the site. 

One of the dangerous attractions of the Ancestry website is the ability to look at family trees submitted by other Ancestry users. These can be tremendously inaccurate. My ancestor Arthur Lawrence had a sister Susannah who was baptised in February 1809 and buried in May of the same year. Both events took place in Kent. Of the six Public Member Trees on Ancestry which include her, five show that she died in Old, Forsyth, North Carolina, USA. How this error first occurred I do not know, but it has obviously been copied by other submitters without thinking. Another tree has the parent of John Lawrence, born 1747, as John Lawrence, died 1423. I was surprised that in some cases I could find no link between the submitter and the people listed, and it is also my experience that similar errors occur on websites such as Genes Reunited (www.genesreunited.co.uk)  and Lost Cousins (www.lostcousins.com). My own data is posted on RootsWeb WorldConnect (http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com) , but much has been downloaded from it by other researchers and included in their own information, even if I have since drawn different conclusions!

Bob Lawrence