A census of the United Kingdom has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941.
The first census of England was that of William I, famously published in the Domesday Book of 1086. Although there were sporadic censuses in the centuries to follow, only late 18th century population pressure lead to support for a regular census. The subsequent 1800 Population Act enabled the 1801 census and allowed for one every decade thereafter.
Census data is collected and recorded by address. When searching for a particular relative, consider they might not have been home that night. Common occupations such as sailor, factory worker or house staff would keep people from their own house. An individual may have been recorded at another house, their place of work or even missed altogether if at sea.
Releasing the data
Statistics are published soon after taking a census. Copies of the sheets completed by enumerators are only released after 100 years so the latest census available is that for 1911. The enumerators’ sheets are only available for the censuses from 1841 onwards. Earlier censuses have only fragmented data, usually available in the local Record Office. The 1921 census will be available in January 2022. This was the first census to ask about industry, place of work, and whether a marriage had been dissolved.
Most family historians use indexes and images available online. Original images allow you to check the document and draw your own conclusions. The search options are very flexible and enable the researcher to use terms other than forename and surname.
Find links to popular census data websites below. Indexes may be unique or shared with other sites. It can be worth checking another site if you cannot find what you want on the first. For example, many providers use work on the 1881 census from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons). These sites frequently have other data. Examples include the GRO records of births, marriages and deaths, parish records, and civil and military records. Data is typically accessed by subscription or on a pay-per-view basis.
- Ancestry. Also offers access to censuses from the United States and Canada.
- Findmypast. Part of Brightsolid, and sharing databases with other Brightsolid sites.
- The Genealogist. 1841 to 1921 census search.
- Genes Reunited. Part of Brightsolid, and sharing databases with other Brightsolid sites.
- Family Search 1881 Census. Index, transcription, but not page images.
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. Published indexes are available for some of the census years, which makes it simpler to locate a particular family or individual. The society 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 shop offers our 1891 index as a CD or download.
Beyond England & Wales
Census for Ireland
The Irish National Archives have free access to 1901 and 2911 census returns. A census of Ireland was taken every ten years from 1821 to 1911 but no manuscript returns survive for 1861-91. There are some fragmented returns for 1821-51. 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.
The early census was simpler
The first four census returns from 1801 through 1831 were taken for straightforward headcount purposes. Personal details were mostly destroyed after recording. From 1841, the census recorded every person staying at an address. From 1851, the census requested further information.
Missing Pages and Omissions
Over the years, some of the enumerators’ books have become damaged or lost. Ancestry have recently carried out a lot of work on water-damaged pages to make them legible. As well as lost or damaged pages, some are missed upon indexing and transcription.
Errors in recording data
Many respondents lied outright about age or occupation to avoid stigma or to cover up child employment. Diminutive forms of first name or even nicknames may have been recorded. Victorian literacy rates hovered just over 60% for men, only improving in the latter half of the 19th Century. So neighbours, relatives or the census enumerators themselves may well have filled out forms. An example is seen in the ship illustration above, as the ship's captain would be responsible for completing the census details for all on board.
When the Census was taken
The dates when the census was taken are as follows:
|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|
Firstly, the original Administrative Numbering System
This is the numbering system dividing 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 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.
Secondly, the subsequent PRO Numbering System
The PRO apply a seperate numbering system to identify bundles of documents deposited there. These comprise:
- 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).