The census is probably the most useful of all genealogical resources – but do you know how to use it properly? This article with give you a basic understanding of how the census works, so you can get the most out of the information you find there, and make sure you are searching correctly.

What you should know about the English census

With the exception of 1941, there has been a census taken every ten years in England and Wales since 1801. For the family historian, the ones taken before 1841 have no use as they are completely statistical and do not contain names.

From 1851, the census contains extremely useful genealogical information, including the relationships of everyone in the household, ages, occupations and place of birth. In the 1911 census you can also see how long a couple have been married, and how many children have survived and/or died.

The census provides essential statistical information for the Government, and was never intended for genealogical purposes. However, the information contained within the census has become vitally important for anyone searching their family history.

For reasons of public privacy, the census remains confidential for 100 years. However, a loophole in the 1911 census regulations allowed it to be published early, and it has been available on some websites for the last two years.

How was the information collected?

It is vital that you understand how information was collected for the census – especially the 19th century – as it will help you to understand why some information seems to be inaccurate, or not agree with other documentation you may have.

One thing that it is important to know is that the information you are seeing is often a copy of a copy of a copy! This naturally leads to many mistakes, misinterpretations and mis-spellings, which can result in mis-information and sometimes not being able to find your ancestor at all.

In each registration district enumerators were sent out to each household with forms that were usually left for the householder to fill in. If the householder was illiterate (very often the case, especially in the early part of the century) the form would be completed by the enumerator by asking questions. This of course leads of variations of spellings, and frequent mis-hearing of a name or place.

The enumerator then copied the information from these schedules into enumerators’ books. These are the records that are available to the public, so are not the original document (which I believe were destroyed). This copying again led to various mistakes.

In latter years, these enumerators’ books have been indexed and transcribed, both for use in archives, and, even more recently, for internet use. Once again, the act of transcribing has resulted in further mistakes, and the indexers’ interpretation of often difficult Victorian handwriting has led to some names and places being so badly mis-transcribed that they do not show up when searching the indexes.

But don’t be put off! Yes, there are many mistakes and mis-spellings on the census – but it is still an absolutely vital and fascinating resource for family historians.

How to search the census.

Nowadays, it is very easy to search the census online if you have a subscription to or one of the other big genealogy websites.

You can usually start by doing a name search, putting in as much information as you can into the other search criteria boxes (e.g. year of birth, place of birth etc). Even if you are sure of the date of birth, it is best to give a range of at least 2 years each side, as the age may not have been given accurately when the information was taken.

If you do not get a satisfactory result – or you get too many possibilities, then you need to start taking out some of the search criteria, and then see what comes up.

I have sometimes found an ancestor whose (for example) surname has been completely mis-transcribed, by leaving the surname blank, and marking every other piece of criteria as being “exact”. You could also do this the other way round by using the surname only without the Christian name. I found my own grandfather this way. His name was Francis Manley. But it was only when I entered “Manley” into the search criteria – with place of birth, age etc all marked as “exact”, that I found him. His Christian name had been written by the enumerator as “Fracis”, which is why he had not shown up in the earlier searches.

In theory, everyone who was living in England during the night of each census, should be on the census. So if you cannot find your ancestor, my advice is to just keep trying. Of course, there are circumstances which may explain a person’s absence. They may be out of the country (unusual for Victorian working classes – unless they have an occupation which would involve them travelling, such as sailor or army officer).

Another reason why your ancestor may not turn up is because they changed their name for some reason. I have seen this particularly happen where the subject was illegitimate, and may have been baptized with his father’s surname, but used his mother’s surname later on (or vice versa). Sometimes people have more dubious reasons for changing a name.

My grandfather (again), was actually baptized Francis McEwen – but after his parents’ early demise, he was brought up by his married sister and her husband, John Manley. Hence from then on my grandfather was known as a Manley – and all his children were named Manley. This caused some complications in my searches I can tell you!

Oh – and if you had a suffragette in your ancestry, then she may not turn up on the 1911 census. Many suffragettes stayed away from home – often sleeping rough – on the night of the census as a form of protest against the Government.

As with all genealogical searches, you often have to use your imagination. Remember, you are dealing with human beings, and human beings can be tricksy!

And just because something is written down does not mean it is 100% true. Every record you look at must be backed up by other resources where possible.

Despite its difficulties, the English census remains one of the most interesting and useful resources for the genealogist, and provides fascinating insight into your ancestors lives and lifestyles.

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