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6. Census

General information

Digitizing census records

Free census indexes

The commercial services



A census has been taken every 10 years since 1801, except in 1941, and names of individuals are recorded from the 1841 census onwards. The significance of these records for genealogists is that they provide snapshots of family groups at 10-year intervals. More importantly, from 1851 onwards they give a place of birth, which is essential information for individuals born before the start of general registration: in combination with an approximate date of birth calculated from the person’s age, this makes it possible to trace the line back to the parish registers.

The 1911 census is different in a number of respects from the earlier censuses. Most notably, the individual household schedules, written and signed by the head of household him- or herself, have been preserved (Figure 6-3). The form also contains fertility information: for each couple, the number of years married, the total number of children born and the number still living. There are a number of other forms showing details of the dwelling and of other buildings in the street.


Figure 6-1: A page from the 1901 census (Ancestry)

The censuses are probably the most voluminous and the most complex genealogical records to go online, and with so many sites offering large amounts of census data, this chapter can only aim to give an overview and a brief look at the main sites offering census indexes. Census: The Census. The Family Historian’s Guide, gives much more detail, including a step-by-step guide to each of the commercial services (as at 2014).

General information

There are a number of starting points for official information on the census. The National Archives’ research guide on ‘Census records’ at <> has basic details and links to commercial indexes. The GenDocs site shows exactly what information was recorded in each column of the census forms for each census from 1841 to 1901 at <>.

If you are not familiar with census records and the way they are referred to, the British-Genealogy site explains piece numbers, folio numbers and schedules at <>. This is essential information if you are to refer to a census record as a source in your pedigree.

Genuki has pages on the census for:

Talking Scot’s pages devoted to the Scottish census are at <>, though they do not yet include 1911.

All census records for England and Wales are catalogued in The National Archives’ catalogue at <>. Even if you are using an online census index this may be useful as it provides a way of establishing the piece number(s) for a particular place in each census.

Histpop at <> is a site devoted to the history of the British population, and holds an enormous number of official documents relating to the censuses, including the population abstracts and the final census reports. For the population of individual counties and towns, see A Vision of Britain Through Time at <> (p. 254), which has graphs of population change between 1801 and 2001. Following the ‘Census reports’ link on the home page will take you to the site’s many census reports and a 1977 official Guide to the Census Reports, which ‘outlines the history of the census and describes how coverage of various topics has developed’.

Digitizing census records

While we seem doomed to an interminable wait for civil registration records to go online, there has been enormous progress in putting census records on the web. Scotland was the first to put census indexes and images online, when the 1881 census index and images for the 1891 census were released in August 2001. The 1901 census for England and Wales, digitized by The National Archives and defence contractor QinetiQ, went online in January 2002. While the immense demand initially caused the site to crash, this at least showed the huge potential interest, and the result was that by April 2006, all the censuses for England, Wales and Scotland from 1841 to 1901 were available on the web. Even Ireland, the laggard in getting genealogical records online, completed its digitization of the surviving census records by the summer of 2011.

The 1911 census for England and Wales was expected to be available to the public from January 2012. The fact that it was released in advance of that date is the result of a request from Guy Etchells under the Freedom of Information Act, initially refused by The National Archives. But in December 2006 the Information Commissioner ruled that, as long as certain sensitive items of information were concealed, there was no reason why the records could not be made available. Although Guy’s initial request was for access to the record for a single household, The National Archives decided more or less immediately that it would digitize the whole 1911 census for release in 2009. The contract for the project was awarded to Scotland Online (now called Brightsolid), the company behind ScotlandsPeople. With the subsequent takeover of Findmypast by Brightsolid in 2008, Findmypast became involved in the project, and on 13 January the first batch of data went online with Findmypast’s branding. Since then, The Genealogist has launched its own complete index to this census, and Ancestry’s index is being released in stages with completion expected during 2012. The 1911 census for Scotland, not affected by the FOI request, was launched, as had been expected, on its 100th anniversary in April 2011.

This means that all publicly available census records for the British Isles are online, in many cases with several distinct indexes.

Free census indexes

While you will need to use the commercial services as the only ones which provide images of the original records — you will need to consult these to check the index entries — there are three major sites which provide census indexes free of charge, and many local indexes.


FamilySearch has census indexes for all the published censuses of England and Wales. The 1881 Census Index was in fact created in the 1980s by the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) and the Federation of Family History Societies. This was published first on microfiche and then on CD-ROM, and it is the index used for 1881 on all the commercial sites. The remaining years are all provided by arrangement with Findmypast and Origins. The images for these records are available on FamilySearch only if you are accessing it from a Family History Center; otherwise you are taken to the Findmypast site, where you will need to subscribe or purchase pay-per-view credits.

At the time of writing, the indexes for 1871 and 1881 are only partially available, with at least 80 per cent of the records still to be added. The 1881 Census Index is still available on the old FamilySearch site at <>. (You need to search ‘All Resources’, with ‘1881’ in the Year field and ‘England’ or ‘Wales’ in the Country field; selecting ‘Census’ just takes you back to the new site.)

Apart from the missing records, there are significant limitations in these indexes. The first is that the search options themselves are quite restricted, certainly compared to what is available on Findmypast. Second, on all the censuses apart from 1881, the results do not show the full details — the street address is not given, and in some cases not even the place of residence or the remaining household members (Figure 6-2).


Figure 6-2: Search results for the 1891 census at FamilySearch

If you are already subscribed to Findmypast, FamilySearch’s census indexes do not bring any benefits. However, if you are using Ancestry or The Genealogist, the ability to search for an otherwise unfindable individual in another index free of charge will sometimes be useful.


FreeCEN at <> is a comprehensive volunteer project which aims to provide a free index to all censuses for England, Wales and Scotland from 1841 to 1891. Work so far has concentrated on the 1861 and 1891 census, and there is still a very long way to go. However, some counties are complete or nearly complete for individual census years. In particular, Cornwall has been almost entirely indexed, while for the 1841 census all Scottish counties are complete. By March 2012, the site had transcribed almost 21 million records. Usefully, it gives details of exactly which piece numbers are covered, and there is a status page for each county currently being transcribed, linked from <>.

FHS Online

FHS Online at <> is run by S&N Genealogy Supplies, who also run The Genealogist, as a platform for family history societies to publish their data. The site hosts 49 free county census indexes, though they do not necessarily cover the whole county for a particular census year.

Access is free, though you need to complete a registration in order to carry out searches. Search facilities are very basic — just name and age — and the results give only the area and The National Archives’ census reference, not the address. However, once you have found an individual, you can get a complete listing of the household.

Local indexes

There are countless other small indexes to census material on the web. You will find much census material on sites for individual villages or parishes, and even on some FHS sites. The Workhouses site at <> has census extracts for many workhouses.

Census Finder has probably the most comprehensive set of links to local transcriptions on its UK page at <>, organized by county. The Genuki county and parish pages will also have links to local census indexes.

Another useful site is freecensus at <> which has a table linking to free census data for every county in the British Isles.

The commercial services

All the main commercial data services listed on p. 45ff. offer census records on a subscription or pay-per-view basis. In addition, there are dedicated sites for the 1901 census and the 1911 census of England and Wales at <> and <> respectively. Table 6-1 shows what they offer as of January 2012.

Table 6-1 Census indexes on the commercial data services (January 2012)


The table is provisional in that there are two current developments at the time of writing, which should be complete by the time you read this: Ancestry should have finished creating its index for the 1911 census, and Findmypast should have 1881–1901 census indexes for Scotland. Once these are complete, there are no more census records to digitize until 2021.

In spite of the many commercial sites offering censuses data, the number of distinct sets of census indexes is in reality much smaller. For a start, The Genealogist and RootsUK are both run by S&N Genealogy Supplies with identical data but different search facilities. Second, Genes Reunited, 1901 Census Online and the 1911 census site are all run by Findmypast and use the same census indexes, except that Findmypast has its own separate index to the 1901 census. Findmypast and Origins have cross-licensed some of their indexes, so that all those available at Origins are identical to those at Findmypast. Finally, all the 1881 censuses indexes of England and Wales take the free FamilySearch index (p. 87) as their basis, and this is normally not charged for on pay-per-view sites. Broadly speaking, then, there are only three groups of indexes for England and Wales:

This is important because, if you can’t find someone in the census index on one site and want to try another, there is no point in using one with an identical index.

For details of the main data services, see Chapter 4. The two dedicated census sites are discussed below.

1901 census

Now at Findmypast.

The 1901 Census site at <> contains the original 1901 census index launched in 2002 and also offers civil registration indexes. The site operates a pay-per-view system, with 500 credits costing £5. Searches are free, but viewing an individual or household record costs 50 credits (50p) and viewing the census image costs 75 credits (75p). Credits are valid for the very short period of seven days. The search options are extensive, including person, address, place, institution, vessel and reference number searches.

While the census index on this site is historically important, the absence of any other censuses on the site means it is not likely to be your first choice for searching the 1901 census. However, if you have been unable to find someone in another 1901 index, the extensive search options make this a useful backup option.

1911 census

Now at Findmypast.

The 1911 Census site is at <>. The site runs a pay-per-view system, though it is more expensive than the other pay-per-view census sites: the household listing costs 10 credits (i.e. £1), and the census images 30 credits (£3). The justification for the higher costs is that the amount of material to be transcribed is much greater and instead of a single image to view, you get a whole bunch of them, photographed in colour, not just digitized from microfilm. The site is run by Findmypast and the same index is available on Findmypast and Genes Reunited, both of which offer a much wider range of material.


Figure 6-3: 1911 Census: household schedule (Findmypast)

As with the 1901 census site, since there’s only a single census on the site there’s no reason for this to be your first port of call for the 1911 census, now that other sites have indexes to this census. But it will be useful under two circumstances: if you have been unable to find someone in that census on Ancestry, The Genealogist or RootsUK (assuming their 1911 indexes are complete by the time you read this); or if you are a seasoned family historian and have already exhausted the earlier censuses. The extensive search options may also make it a good alternative if you have been using Genes Reunited and been unable to find someone with that site’s more basic search facilities.

Searching the censuses


Figure 6-4: Typical census search process (right: Scotlandspeople)

The process of census searching on the commercial services is generally quite similar, and the flowchart in Figure 6-4 gives an overview of the typical process. The search options of the individual sites are shown in Table 6-2. If you are a pay-per-view customer, you will have credits deducted for seeing the individual and household records and the image. Only ScotlandsPeople differs very significantly from the others: you have to pay to see each page of search results, and it does not offer a transcription of an individual record or household, but goes straight from the list of search results to the page image.

Table 6.2: Census search


In addition to the general advice on searching on p. 38, there are some particular issues that arise when searching online census indexes.

Ages are particularly problematic, and not just because our ancestors could not be relied on to know how old they were. On many of the original census forms ages were subsequently crossed through as a way of marking that an individual had been counted. Because almost all modern census indexes are based on digitized monochrome microfilm, these annotations, quite distinct on the original records, often make the age difficult to read with certainty (see Figure 6-5, from the 1891 census for Essex Road, Islington). Another problem is that many of the search forms ask you to enter not an age but a birth year. But because the censuses were taken between March and June it is in fact impossible to calculate accurately a person’s year of birth from the age given in a census (even assuming the person did actually know his or her age). For this reason, it is advisable not to search an exact birth year but always allow at least one year either side. If this doesn’t work, try leaving out the age altogether: it’s quite possible for a 1 or a 7 to have been mistaken by the transcriber for a crossing-off, turning a 72-year old into a 2-year old.


Figure 6-5: Hard-to-read ages in the 1891 census

With a common name, you may be very tempted to try and narrow down your search by giving an occupation known from, say, a marriage certificate. This may work. But quite apart from the fact that your ancestor may have changed jobs, there can be many different way to express the same occupation. Also, like ages, occupations were often partially overwritten with pen strokes or annotations when the forms were analysed, as you can see in from Figure 6-1, and so are particularly liable to be mistranscribed.

As to the gender field, there is generally no good reason to search on it — the indexes have many gender errors and most forenames from the period are unambiguously male or female, making the gender field redundant. The only real use is when you are searching without a forename (say, if you haven’t been able to find someone under the name you were expecting) and want to keep the number of search results manageable.

More detailed discussion of census search techniques will be found in Chapter 5 of Census. The Family Historian’Guide.


The National Archives of Ireland have a brief page of information at <>, as has the PRONI at <>. A good guide to the Irish censuses, detailing what is missing and what has survived, is available on the Fianna site at <>.

Until recently, the situation with the Irish censuses has been very different from that for the rest of the British Isles. Until the end of 2007 there was no official or commercial site offering images of Irish census records, and the only indexes were those made for individual counties or towns by volunteers. Of course, the situation with the records themselves is also very different — almost no Irish census records survive for the nineteenth century. On the other hand, the 1901 and 1911 censuses have been publicly accessible in Ireland since the 1980s, so the irrelevance of the privacy issues that have controlled the timing of their digitization in England, Wales and Scotland ought to have seen them digitized sooner rather than later, one would have thought.

But in December 2005 the National Archives of Ireland joined Library and Archives Canada to announce a project to digitize the two surviving Irish censuses, and make them available online free of charge. In December 2007 the first fruits of this collaboration, the 1911 Census for Dublin, went online at <>. By June 2010 the 1901 and 1911 censuses were available in their entirety.

The next Irish census due for release is that for 1926, the first one conducted by the newly formed Irish Free State (there was no census in 1921 because of the war between the Irish and Britain). As in England, there is a movement to reduce the closure period for the next census from 100 years to 75, which would make it immediately available. A campaign by the Irish genealogy world, led by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations (CIGO) — see <> — has resulted in a commitment from the Irish Government in its 2011 programme to ‘enable publication of the 1926 census’.[1] That initial commitment gave no timescale for the actual digitization, but the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has since stated in a written answer to the Irish parliament that ‘it is my intention to have the census returns digitised and made available on-line as a 1916 centenary project, subject to resources and the resolution of legal and other issues’. In March 2012 it was confirmed that the necessary legislation had received Cabinet approval and should be passed within four months, with only the issue of funding to be resolved.

Census of Ireland 1901/1911

On the official Irish census site at <>, the search allows you to specify name, age in 1911, the townland or street and, if you know it, the district electoral division (DED, the equivalent of the British enumeration district). The initial search results (Figure 6-6) show name, address, age and gender, but the absence of birthplace in this listing may mean you cannot immediately identify the correct individual. However, since it costs nothing to look at the images of the household schedules (Figure 6-3), this hardly matters.


Figure 6-6: Ireland 1911 census: search results

From the search results, clicking on the name takes you to a page listing the entire household, and this has links to the images. Alongside the image of the household return, the site provides all the other forms (enumerator’s abstract, house and building return, out-office and farm-steading return) in PDF format, one file per return, and the images open in the Acrobat viewer (see p. 60).

Where those in the household are Irish speakers, the household return will be in Irish, using the Irish script, and with the Irish forms of names (e.g. Seághan for John, Séamus for James). However, the head of household’s name, anglicized, will be in the index as this occurs on the cover of the household return. So the playwright Sean O’Casey appears in the 1911 census as Seághan Ó Cathasaigh in the household of his brother Michael Casey. Female family members will usually have the traditional feminine form Ni before their surname rather than Ó. See p. 293 for resources to help with the Irish language.

Ireland’s National Centre for Gecocomputation has a useful online map to help with identifying locations: its ‘Population Change 1841–2002’ map, available from <>, allows you to select a county and then see a map of the DEDs. If you tick the ‘Background Mapping’ option, the boundaries are superimposed on a modern street map or satellite photograph.

Local indexes

There are a number of sites with census data for individual counties, though their usefulness is now diminished because of the official site. But they may nonetheless prove useful if you have trouble finding an individual on the NAI site.

In the Republic of Ireland some data from the 1901 census is online at <>. Available data covers all or part of the following six counties: Roscommon, Leitrim, Mayo, Sligo, Wexford, Westmeath and Galway. Data for Leitrim and Roscommon is essentially complete, but for the others, only small amounts of material are present. A table gives detailed information about which individual parishes are wholly or partly covered.

Census Finder has links to many local transcriptions for Ireland at <>. While these are mainly for the 1901 census with some material for 1911, they include some surviving fragments of nineteenth-century censuses.

Irish Origins (p. 47) has the surviving records of the 1851 census for Dublin. Because of the amount of Irish census material destroyed, the so-called ‘census substitutes’ are important. One of the most important census substitutes, Griffith’s Valuation, is discussed in Chapter 8, p. 123. Fianna has a useful guide to these at <>, while the National Archives of Ireland has a briefer description at <>. The PRONI has similar information leaflets on valuation records and tithe applotment books linked from <>.


It is not possible to deal here with census data for countries outside the British Isles, but Cyndi’s List provides links to census sites around the world at <>.

The census data on FamilySearch includes the 1880 US census and the 1881 Canadian census, and there is a large amount of US census data online at <>, which, for UK users, requires a worldwide subscription (see p. 52).

Next chapter: 7 Church Records

1 See p. 50 of the document at <>.