The Genealogist Research Guide

What is the Census?

Sample of section of census pageThe census is a statistical exercise undertaken to inform the government, counting and recording facts about the population. You could say that the first large scale census taken in modern history was Domesday and there have been others over the years, such as Muster rolls, taken to see what able-bodied men and weapons were available for war.

A census, as we understand it now has been carried out every decade since 1801. The only exception was 1941 when other things seemed more important. It is not intended for family historians to use, but as a government exercise in finding out statistics about the population, to enable them to make informed decisions on a wide variety of topics including housing, transport and food, and to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the economic structure of the country.

What Does It Tell Us?

From 1801-1831, purely statistical data was collected with no usable genealogical material, however the 1841 census introduced records with some personal information for the first time. The usefulness of the 1841 census is limited to family historians because it didn't accurately record people's ages, or where they were born, only noting if they were born in the same county or not.

The amount of information collected was extended in 1851 and from 1851 to 1901 there are only minor changes to the information recorded on the census form. The principal information you can expect to find is:

  • Address - Unfortunately not always very accurate, unless your ancestors lived in a named house or farm. You may have to settle for simply knowing the name of the road or the village.
  • Name - The surname with at least one forename, although it could turn out to be a pet name, and sometimes you find second forenames or initials.
  • Relationship - How the individual is related to the head of the household. Information providing the structure of the family, especially where married children or relations are included in the household.
  • Condition - Whether married, widowed or single. Again useful in establishing family structure.
  • Age -From 1851 onwards, these are usually as accurate as your ancestors were able or prepared to supply. In the 1841 census they are usually rounded to the nearest 5 years for adults.
  • Occupation - The rank, profession or occupation can be useful in helping to establish that you have found the correct person, especially if they share a relatively common name.
  • Where born - Another field that is useful in helping you identify individuals, although for a number of reasons it frequently contains mistakes.

In addition to the above, the 1911 Census was the first to include the number of years a couple had been married and how many children had been born to that marriage.

Possible Pitfalls

Many people don't realise that the census page images we see are actually transcripts of the household census forms, the details being copied into the books by enumerators. This provides several opportunities for mistakes to occur, firstly as they tried to decipher the writing on the household forms, which were later destroyed. Illiterate or barely literate ancestors may not have understood the form or even known with any accuracy the answer to the questions. They may have been suspicious of this government prying into their affairs and been less than honest in their answers. Just as today, a certain percentage manage to avoid being included, either deliberately or accidentally. With the possibility of errors and misinformation creeping in from the very outset, you should always use your own judgment when assessing the information from the census. It may be completely accurate, but you will often find discrepancies.

Because of these problems, TheGenealogist has come up with some unique tools to help you find your relatives; such as the family forename search tool, which allows you to search for a group of people by forename only or the house & street search, allowing you to see exactly who is living at a particular address and the keyword master search, which allows you to search for a list of key words; such as name, year/place of birth, occupation and area, etc.

Using the Census

The biggest problem for the family historian is actually finding the entries they need amongst this vast collection of data. Unless your ancestors never moved more than a mile from their origins, some sort of finding aid is required.

At first the only help available was an index to places, to help you locate the relevant section to manually search page by page, and for larger towns and cities a street index. Family history societies then started to index their areas and make some name indexes available. These didn't make a very large impression though and most of the census remained unindexed until the joint project to transcribe and index the 1881 census took place and showed what could be done. The upsurge in the use of home computers and the internet have brought a complete new set of tools to the aid of the family historian, and an ever growing demand for more information to become accessible online.

British Data Archive have made the census page images available on CD, for everyone to use on their own home computers at any time. This itself was a great improvement, as only a couple of years ago you would probably have had to travel the country to get only a couple of hours access. Having produced the images for everyone to use, the next logical step was to provide those images with the indexing necessary to make them easy to use, and with this aim in mind, S&N set up The Genealogist indexing and transcription project

How to: Searching the Census Online:

Each category listed offers a choice of records within that category and then opens a window with the applicable search fields for your chosen document.


The census window offers a basic search on name and age, with the option for phonetic variations and nicknames - a rather clever system that identifies variants of forenames, such as Betty, Betsy, Beth and Liz as being Elizabeth. Switch to Advanced Search and you have all these options plus the ability to specify data for all the fields in the census form, including street address and occupation.


If you select an individual census county from your Research View page, you will be taken to the search page as above. On this page, you can specify a census year and do a standard search with name and age, and also include nickname and surname variant option. If you wish to do an advanced search, click on the link and your page will change to that shown below. This opens up options to include the district, occupation, relation to head, birth county and street address in your search.


Once you have submitted your search, the results will be listed below. You can arrange your results according to your own preference, by using the arrows in each heading box.

The icons on the right-hand side of each entry will allow you to open the original image, save the image, report a problem with the transcript/image, view all family members and view the entire household.


Household View example:


Census Image example:


Census records are also available to search via the Master Search, Family Forename Search and House and Street Search. Please see the 'Unique Search Tools on TheGenealogist' section of this guide for further details.

Volunteer Census Indexes

Volunteers have indexed the census recording the Surname, Forename, Age and the reference to the correct census page. These are another way of locating your ancestors in the census and form a useful alternative to the transcripts. For credit based subscriptions these have the benefit of costing no credits