General UK Census Information

A census of the United Kingdom has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941. The statistical returns are published soon after the census has been taken, but copies of the actual sheets completed by enumerators have traditionally only been released after one hundred years. The latest census available is that for 1911.

The enumerators’ sheets are only available for the censuses from 1841 onwards. Some details from earlier censuses do survive, and can usually be found in the local Record Office.


Using the Census

Older family historians may remember using the original census books at the Public Record Office. Later, the census was microfilmed and copies bought by local libraries and record offices. These copies are still available, and can sometimes be useful when researchers wish to scan or copy the census returns for a particular locality. Published indexes are available for some of the census years, which makes it simpler to locate a particular family or individual.

Most family historians now use the indexes and images that are available online. These have the advantage that you can check the original document and draw your own conclusions from what is written. The search options are very flexible, and enable the researcher to use other terms than simply forename and surname.

These websites are listed below. Some have their own indexes, while others share indexes with other sites. It is sometimes worth checking another site if you cannot find what you want on the first one you use. It is not easy to know how many different census indexes there actually are, and some will have corrections submitted by users. Many providers use the index and transcription of the 1881 census carried out by volunteers working  under the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons).

The following websites offer this service at the present time and have all the censuses from 1841 to 1911. They also have other data, such as the GRO records of births, marriages and deaths, parish records and civil and military records. Data can be accessed either by buying a subscription or on a pay-per-view basis.

Ancestry

This site also offers access to censuses from the United States and Canada.
www.ancestry.co.uk

Findmypast

Part of Brightsolid, and sharing databases with other Brightsolid sites.
www.findmypast.co.uk

The Genealogist

www.thegenealogist.co.uk

Genes Reunited

Part of Brightsolid, and sharing databases with other Brightsolid sites.
www.genesreunited.co.uk

Origins

Only has the 1841, 1861 and 1871 censuses
www.origins.net

1881 Census

The 1881 census is available online fee of charge at the Family Search website. The index and a transcription are provided, but not images of the original pages.
www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/frameset_search.asp

1901 Census

Operated by Genes Reunited, and so part of Brightsolid. Despite its name, provides access to all the usual U.K. censuses.
www.1901censusonline.com

1911 Census

Only has the 1911 census. Part of Brightsolid.
www.1911census.co.uk


Alternatives to the online census

Before the development of the high-speed internet, many individuals and organisations compiled indexes to the census. These were usually either printed or published on CD. They do not give access to images of the original enumerators’ books, and the indexes are often fairly basic. They may however sometimes be useful in providing an alternative interpretation of the original. The only national index is that of the 1881 census carried out by volunteers working under the direction of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). The Bristol & Avon FHS has published indexes to the 1851 and 1891 census for our own area. The 1851 census index is available on microfiche at the Society’s Research Room, while the 1891 index is published on CD and available for purchase.

The census on microfilm can be searched at The National Archives at Kew. Local copies are held in record offices and at some central libraries. It is generally easier to view an image online than using a microfilm reader. Microfilm is usually monochrome, is easily scratched, and reproduction is poorer. Online images can be easily enlarged, and are sometimes a colour reproduction, which can make the text more legible.

Some family historians may recall that, before the days of the online census and its attendant name indexes, the then Public Record Office and Family Record Centre had indexes to tell you where particular streets were enumerated. This source is still available through the TNA Historical Streets Project at:

http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php?title=Your_Archives:Historical_Streets_Project.

The archive was closed to new users w.e.f. February 2012 but if you were an 'existing user' you could continue to add your own information about a street for each of the censuses from 1841 to 1891.  From September 2012, the archive will be closed - more information about this here


FreeCEN

FreeCEN offers indexes and transcriptions free of charge on the Internet at http://freecen.rootsweb.com. This is a volunteer project so coverage is uneven, and only the censuses from 1841 to 1891 are covered. There is no access to images of the original documents, but you could use the reference provided to find the image on one of the pay sites.


Missing Pages and Omissions

Over the years, some of the enumerators’ books have become damaged or lost. There is a good summary of missing pages available free of charge at www.findmypast.co.uk/helpadvice/knowledge-base/census/index.jsp#issues. Some of the pages listed are in Manchester for 1851, and Ancestry have recently carried out a lot of work on water-damaged pages to make them legible.

As well as pages which have been lost or damaged, some pages are missed when the indexing and transcription are done.

When the Census was taken

The dates when the census was taken are as follows:

Year

Day

Date

TNA Reference

1801

Tuesday

10th March

 

1811

Monday

27th May

 

1821

Monday

28th May

 

1831

Monday

30th May

 

1841

Sunday

6th June

HO 107

1851

Sunday

30th March

HO 107

1861

Sunday

7th April

RG 9

1871

Sunday

2nd April

RG 10

1881

Sunday

3rd April

RG 11

1891

Sunday

5th April

RG 12

1901

Sunday

31st March

RG 13

1911

Sunday

2nd April

RG 14

Researchers not familiar with British Census Returns should note that two completely separate numbering systems are applied to them.


Original Administrative Numbering System.

Firstly, there is the numbering system applied to the division of the country into administrative areas.  The UK is initially divided up into Divisions, and the two Divisions of most interest to us are South-Western Counties, Division 5, and West Midland Counties, Division 6.

Each Division is divided up into Registration or Union Counties, and the two Counties of most interest to us are Somerset, which is numbered 21 and was part of Division 5, and Gloucestershire which is numbered 22 and was part of Division 6.

Each Registration County is divided into Superintendent Registrar's Districts, and Gloucester includes Bristol which is numbered 329, and Clifton which is 330. (This may confuse partisan Bristolians, who will know that Bristol was a County in its own right from 1373, quite distinct from the County of Gloucestershire.  However, it must be remembered that that for Census purposes, we are talking about Registration Counties, which comprise groups of Districts based on the Poor Law Unions.  "Whenever a District or Union extends into more than one County, it is assigned wholly to the County in which the greater portion of the population of such District is located."  Thus, Bristol, despite being itself a real County, when treated as a Poor Law Union or District, is allocated to the Registration County of Gloucestershire.)

Each District is divided into Sub-Districts, and the District of Bristol for example includes the Sub-Districts of Castle Precincts, which is numbered 2, and St.Paul which is 3.

Each Sub-District is divided into individual "Parishes, Townships or Places", and Castle Precincts for example includes the Parishes of St.Nicholas, which is numbered 1 and St.Stephen which is 2.

Finally, 'Parishes' are divided into Enumeration Districts, and St.Nicholas for example is further divided into 1a, 1b and 1c. Each Enumeration District comprises a number of pages in the Census Enumerators' Books (CEBs), the books themselves coming in various standard sizes, e.g. there were 6 different sizes of Book in the 1851 Census, namely 16, 24, 36, 48, 60 and 72-page books.


Subsequent PRO Numbering System

Secondly, and quite separately, there is the numbering system applied by the PRO to identify bundles of documents deposited there, comprising the Call Number (e.g. Home Office is HO, and Registrar General is RG), the Class Number (e.g. the 1841 and 1851 Census are HO 107, and the 1861 Census is RG 9), the Piece Number (e.g. in the 1851 Census, Castle Precincts is 1948) and finally the Folio (comprising two CEB Pages).


Further Information

For further information on the census, there are various books available from The National Archives bookshop at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/bookshop

For further information on the earlier Censuses, refer to a booklet written by the Bristol & Avon FHS Society President, Colin R. Chapman, entitled Pre-1841 Censuses & Population Listings, published by Lochin Publishing and available from our Shop.


Census for Scotland

While Ancestry has a census index for Scotland, Findmypast and The Genealogist do not. Ancestry provides an index and transcription, but not images of the original census books. Index, transcription and original images are all available on the ScotlandsPeople website at www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. The 1911 census for Scotland will be available from April 2011.

Census for Ireland

A census of Ireland was taken every ten years from 1821 to 1911. No manuscript returns survive for 1861, 1871, 1881 and 1891 but there are some returns for 1821, 1831, 1841 and 1851. The 1901 and 1911 census returns for the whole of Ireland are now fully searchable online and free of charge at www.census.nationalarchives.ie, across fields which were filled in on the original census forms - thirteen fields were returned in 1901 and fifteen in 1911. The returns may be searched by religion, occupation, relationship to head of family, literacy status, county or country of origin, Irish language proficiency, specified illnesses, and child survival information.