The Census

The first national census of England & Wales was carried out in 1801 and further enumerations were carried out in 1811, 1821 and 1831. There was no requirement to record names and so most of these returns are genealogically useless. In a few areas, however, names were recorded and records have survived. See Reading list below for areas covered. Names were first required in 1841 and the first recognisably "modern" census was taken in 1851. The process has continued every 10 years with the exception of 1941 when wartime conditions prevailed. A 100 year closure rule applies to viewing the records.

The census returns are of immeasurable value to the family historian since they show families as households and provide details of ages, relationships and birthplaces. These details can be helpful in locating events within civil registration and are invaluable as a springboard back into the period before 1837 when research will depend upon the use of parish registers.

How the Census was Taken
The basis for taking the census was the system of Registration Districts which had been introduced  for civil registration of births, marriages and deaths (itself based on the Poor Law Union boundaries established in 1832). Each registration sub-district was divided into a number of Enumeration Districts and an Enumerator appointed to collect information in each. The Enumerator travelled around his appointed district distributing schedules to each household to be completed with the details of all people present in the household on census night. Shortly after census night, he would return to collect the forms. His next job was to complete an enumeration book by transcribing the details from each schedule in turn. He would also complete some summary information and describe the district and its boundaries. He then forwarded his enumeration book(s), together with the schedules, to the Registrar who in turn sent them to the Registrar General. The schedules were at some stage discarded and no longer survive so we are dependent upon the details as transcribed by the Enumerator. Following analysis of the returns and publication of statistical reports, the enumeration books were put into storage and are held under a 100 year closure rule.

From 1911 onwards, the enumeration books were discontinued and the household schedules were sent to the Registrar General for analysis.

Enumeration District Details
Each enumerator was required to include a description of the area for which he was responsible in a section at the front of his enumeration book. This should describe the boundary of the area, usually by reference to the boundary streets in a city but possibly in less precise terms for a village or small town. He will also list the streets and occasionally institutions within the enumeration district. Enumerators might start on a main road but then divert to enumerate small side streets, courts or tenements before returning to enumerate further households on the original road. Streets may therefore be enumerated in small stretches scattered throughout the district return. Boundaries were frequently defined down the middle of a street so, for example, odd house numbers and even house numbers may be found in two different enumeration districts. Similarly a long road might both form a boundary between districts and also pass through several districts. You may have to search ten or more districts in the case of a major highway.

Separate (and slightly different format) books were completed by those responsible for large institutions such as hospitals, army barracks or workhouses. There are separate returns for those on board naval and merchant vessels though the rules for enumeration of those on board ships changed from census to census.

The Data in the Enumeration Books for 1841
The 1841 census returns are considerably different (and less informative) than those for later years. They also contain some pitfalls for the unwary. They are, however, if used with caution, still highly valuable.

The information in the 1841 enumeration books consists of:

The peculiar way in which ages are to be recorded reflects the practice in earlier (anonymous) censuses but 1841 was the last year in which ages were recorded in this way. You will, however, occasionally find precise ages stated for adults. These "precise" ages may, however, not be trustworthy as is discussed below. You should also note that relationships are not stated and care must be taken in inferring them from ages and the order in which names are listed. Although the first name will usually be the head of the household, do not infer that the similarly-aged woman who appears next is his wife. She may be his sister or more distant relation.

Data in the Enumeration Books for 1851 Onwards
The data in these later books is considerably more helpful than for 1841. It consists of:


Houses and Households
The enumerator was required to indicate the boundaries between separate houses and separate households sharing a common building. In 1851, uniquely, the division between separate houses was indicated by a line across the first four columns of the page and between separate families in the same house (e.g. occupying rooms in a shared house) by a line across part of the second column and across the third and fourth columns. In other years, houses are separated by two oblique strokes and households by a single oblique stroke at the right hand side of the "Houses" column.

Numbering System
The census returns are numbered by The National Archives in distinct series for each census year. Those for 1841 and 1851 were deposited by the Home Office and are filed in Class HO107. Later ones were deposited by the Registrar General and are filed in Class RG9 (1861), RG10 (1871), RG11 (1881), RG12 (1891) and RG13 (1901). Within each class, collections of books are numbered with a "Piece" reference up to 4 digits long e. g. HO107/2345, RG11/35. How many books make up a piece may differ from census year to census year.

Each enumeration book's pages are numbered in sequence but since there may be several books in each piece, a page number may be repeated several times and so it is difficult to refer to an individual page with any precision. To overcome this problem, a system called "folio numbering" is used. The several books making up the piece were stitched along the spine to make one large book. A sequence of numbers, starting at 1 was then stamped onto the top right hand corner of the front of each page. This is called the "folio number" and applies to the numbered page and its un-numbered reverse. Since the pieces are filmed page-by-page, folio numbers will appear on alternate images and refer to the numbered image and the one which immediately follows. Folio numbers provide a unique reference to locate an entry within a given piece.

 Where to Find the Census returns
The original books are deposited at The National Archives, Kew. They are only available to the public by advance request and where the filmed copy is illegible.

The enumeration books have been filmed and can be seen on microfilm or microfiche at a variety of places:

It is, however, considerably more common to access the census returns on the internet (see below)

The Census on the Internet
The census enumeration books (schedules for 1911) have all been digitally scanned and can be accessed via a number of web sites. These sites charge for access to the images, though use of the indexes is generally free of charge. Payment may be by subscription or pay-to-view, according to the site. Sites which offer census images include:

It should be noted that each provider has created his own indexes and that these may differ. It is not uncommon for an entry which has been incorrectly indexed by one provider to be correctly indexed by another.

The quality of indexing is not always what one might wish. Much of the work has been done by workers outside the UK for whom English was not their first language and who would have no familiarity with local surnames. This means that names which may be instantly recognised when seen on the page may be meaningless as they appear in the index. When using these indexes, it is not common for the search to fail simply because the family name has been mis-read. One should not assume that a nil return means that the family was not correctly enumerated. In such cases, the use of traditional finding aids (see below) may help.

Finding Aids
The immediate problem we face is "which piece do we need to search to find a specific place?". The National Archives have produced indexes listing townships and villages and indicating the piece number(s) required. For larger towns and cities the problem is that there may be a large number of pieces involved. For these places, street indexes have been compiled.

Name and street indexes have been produced for many areas, usually by members of family history societies. These may only list surnames (with the folio numbers on which they appear) or may be full transcripts of the returns or anything in-between. There is a fully indexed transcript to the 1881 census for the whole of mainland Britain available on fiche and CDROM. For other years, national coverage is patchy with 1851 being the year for which the largest number of returns have been indexed. Indexes will mostly be published in booklet form covering relatively small areas though a few counties have been indexed fully and the resulting databases are searchable for a fee. The returns for 1851 for Norfolk, Devon and Warwickshire have been published on CDROM by the LDS Church. The LDS have also sponsored a complete transcription of the 1881 returns and these can be accessed free of charge at

Finding People in the Census
If you are fortunate, the census returns you wish to search will be indexed and this will lead you directly to the census entry. Otherwise, you will need to find an address to search. In a village, a blanket search through the returns of a few hundred households will not take long but if the family was living in a city, even if the district is known, such a search would be very much a last resort.

Possible sources of addresses include:

You may find it useful to use a contemporary map, for example the Alan Godfrey reprints of Ordnance Survey maps, as a means of "following the enumerator" and placing the census address into its local context. Note that the boundary between enumeration districts will often be down the centre of a street which may therefore appear in two enumeration districts. Long streets may be divided between several enumeration districts. Be certain not to miss any portion, particularly where no house numbers are stated in the returns. Some larger streets may form the boundaries between Registrars' Districts and so may appear on two or more piece numbers.

If searching on the internet (as will be the usual case) it should be noted that not all of the providers offer street indexes. the indexes provided at offer comprehensive street indexes.

Census Problems and Pitfalls
Census data cannot be accepted at face value. The process of collecting, recording and transcribing the information provided many opportunities for error and omission and care must be taken to try to corroborate any information found. Areas in which problems may arise include:

Why the Census is Useful
The census returns show us individuals in their family context and so immediately may identify parents and siblings. There is, however, other useful information which can be derived:

Some General Tips
The following suggestions may help you get the most out of the census:


A Clearer Sense of the Census, Edward Higgs, HMSO (an update of his earlier Making Sense of the Census and the best book on census history and records)

Making Use of the Census, Susan Lumas, TNA (A good practical guide to using the records)

Census Returns 1841-91 on Microfilm - A Guide to Local Holdings, Jeremy Gibson, FFHS

Local Census Listings 1522-1930, Jeremy Gibson, FFHS (Location of 1801-1831 nominal returns as well as many other local lists of people)

Censuses 1841-1891, Eve McLaughlin (short introductory booklet)

 Updated 26 November 2011 - John Marsden