Census Returns

Census returns are one of the most useful resources for the family historian.

A census of the population of the United Kingdom has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941. The 1931 census returns were destroyed in 1941 during the Blitz.

Census data for the period 1801 to 1831 does not generally survive. Some record offices/archives do have information from earlier censuses – eg Shrewsbury holds some names from Wellington for 1831 – but this is rare. The archive/record office catalogue will reveal the holdings.

Why are  census returns important? They can take your family tree back to the late eighteenth century and reveal relatives that you don’t know exist.

Census data is released for public access after 100 years.

Indices to the ten-yearly censuses from 1841 – 1901 are usually in Record Offices and Archives and for 1841-1911 are available online. The indices are usually searchable by name or street.

Just as today, the census enumerators visited each household on their schedule to obtain the information. The enumerators then wrote up the information onto the return forms and the original forms were destroyed. The 1911 returns are the original forms filled out by the householder and these will usually be in your ancestor’s handwriting.

TIP:  Enumerators frequently used abbreviations. You can find a list of these (together with a handy age calculator) at www.census-helper.co.uk


Taken on 6 June 1841.

The 1841 census is the first one that is generally available. This was the first to contain details of all the people in each household, although no relationships are stated. The place of birth is restricted to the county. Ages of adults are rounded to the nearest five years. Addresses are only rough indications.

A single household

A double line beside a name indicates that he or she is the last member of a household. If there is more than one family sharing the same accommodation, a single line often denotes the separation of the different households. All those present in the household on census night are listed together, starting with the head of the household. Servants and lodgers are also listed.

For ALL census returns, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the first column shows the house number.  Many houses did not have house numbers until late into the Victorian period, particularly in rural areas.  The number in this column is the enumerator’s reference number.

In 1841, the  address shown is sometimes only an area or a village. the  census return then  indicates houses which were inhabited or uninhabited; then names, ages, occupations and place of birth.


Strong regional accents and a high level of illiteracy meant information was sometimes recorded incorrectly. Perhaps the enumerator misheard the name of migrants and took a stab at spelling it phonetically. (The Soundex feature at Ancestry.co.uk is useful for working out spelling variants.) With fewer people able to read and write, many householders didn’t fill in their entries and, therefore, couldn’t correct any mistakes.

People may appear under their “pet” name rather than their given one, such as Sally for Sarah, Jack for John. Middle names may be omitted or just an initial given. Occasionally people were recorded by initials alone, sometimes to hide an identity, especially if they were in an asylum or prison.


No relationships are stated. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that an couple with the same surname are husband and wife: they may be brother and sister.

Place of birth

The place of birth is restricted to whether the individual was born in that particular country.


Ages of person aged over 15  are rounded down to the nearest five years.  In theory, at least:  but many enumerators rounded up – or to the nearest five – or just didn’t bother.


Descriptions were often short, and abbreviations, such as “Ag lab” for an agricultural labourer or “MS”/”FS” for a male or female servant are common . Again, there was no check on the information provided, so a labourer might list himself as a farmer. The occupation of a married woman is probably not stated.


Contain far more information than the 1841 census:


You may still find that this is only an area. Sometimes this information is not stated at the top of each census page, and you may have to look back a few pages to establish a street name. It’s worth investigating other relatives in the same area, as families often lived close together.


Relation to head of family

Be warned: what is stated here is sometimes inaccurate– a “cousin” may, in fact, be a nephew or other kin, a son- or daughter-in-law might really be a stepson or daughter.

Visitors, boarders and lodgers may be members of the extended family.

Ancestry indices presume relationships, so always look at the original census return – don’t rely on the index.

Condition as to marriage

M=married, U =unmarried


This should be accurate.

However, often, our ancestors didn’t know or didn’t like to admit their ages, and the information given in this column should not be taken as gospel, although it is rarely wildly out. The squiggle after a child’s age is usually an “M” indicating that they are, for example, three months old rather than three years. Occasionally, you may find ages measured in days or hours.


Place of birth

This should now show the place and the county. This information can be very useful, but may be a little flexible from one census to the next – or even inaccurate, especially if the place stated was far from where the person now lived and was unfamiliar to the enumerator. Some people did not know where they were born and instead of saying so – NK stands for “not known” – took a guess.

Those in financial dire straits may also have worried about being removed from the area under Poor Law legislation and, therefore, claimed falsely to be indigenous to the town or village.

If the person was born outside England and Wales, usually just the country is stated.

Blind, deaf or idiot

Sometimes Victorian ideas on what was ‘acceptable’ is completely different to ours.  An ‘idiot’ was a person who we would now regard as having learning difficulties.

Quite often the head of the household did not complete this column – I tthink that the attitude may have been ‘There’s nothing wrong with our Fred at all, and I’m not going to have anyone say that there is.’

If you find returns where this box is ticked, don’t think that your ancestor necessarily had some sort of disability.  If that was the case, then the particular disability should be stated.  And often the civil servants who compiled the statistics from the census returns put a tick at the end of every line to show that they had extracted the information from that line.


The information is exactly as that on the 1851-1861  census reurns,  except that the last column now asks if a person is blind, deaf, an imbecile, a lunatic or or an idiot.


Information as before, but this census asked how many rooms the household occupied , if less than 5 and whether those in work were an employee, employer or neither (ie self-employed).


Information as before except the return shows whether a worker is an employer, worker (ie an employee)  or working on their own account and if they work at home; where people were born in Scotland or Ireland the return should now state the county; and the last column asks whether a person is deaf and dumb, blind, lunatic or imbecile/feebleminded.


This was a radical departure from previous censuses.

Names are now often given  in full.

Most importantly there is now a five column heading ‘Particulars as to marriage’, the last four to be completed by married women only. These detail marital status; number of years the present marriage has lasted; number of children born to the marriage; number of children living; number of children who have died.

More detailed information is given as to occupation; and the ‘Infirmity’ column has more detailed information.

Most excitingly, the 1911 census returns are the original forms completed by the head of the household – so they should be in your ancestor’s handwriting.

If, however, the head of the house was illiterate, the return will have been completed by another person – and the form should show who that other person was.

Because these are the original returns, any mistakes or additional information will still be shown (though usually crossed through in red ink). I have found names of dead children, full details of the place of employment, and even the full address of the place of birth.

Census reference numbers

Every single sheet of every census return has its own unique reference number.

1841 and 1851 census references begin HO107

1861 begin RG9

1871 begin RG10

1881 begin RG11

1891 begin RG12

1901 begin RG13

1911 begin RG14

In addition, there is a Piece number (this refers to a particular bound volume); a Folio number (this refers to a spread of  pages within each Piece) and  a Page number.

Always make a note of this information: accurate record keeping includes the census reference number.

Problems with census returns:

Be wary of spellings. A name you know to be “Greaves” may appear in the indexes or on the actual return as “Graves” or “Groves”.

Handwriting, especially in 1841 (when the reurns were written in pencil) can be difficult to read.  Also  remember that enumerators wrote down what they heard.

Lies, especially as to relationships.  It’s not unknown for people to lie. A young child of middle aged or elderly parents may well be an illegitimate grandchild. Many people were granny reared.

Transcription errors. Don’t rely on the transcription – look at the original. The transcription makes assumptions.

Some census returns have been lost; others are incomplete (1861 is particularly bad)

Some properties may have been missed.


Online census returns: you can narrow the search by entering an age range, place of birth or location. Because you can view the actual return online or in a Record Office, census records can be a quick way to get started. Remember when searching indices”Less is More”.

It’s possible to feel overwhelmed with all the information available: focus on one branch of the family before broadening your search and keep a clear idea of what you are looking for.

There was no check on the information provided on census returns, and it is usual to come across pet names, understated ages and all kinds of other nuances in the information that point to the human beings behind the records.

Where to find census returns

Local Records Offices and Archives hold copies of the census returns for their areas, and many have street or surname indices to make searching easier. Wolverhampton has a surname index for the whole of Staffordshire for the 1841 census (and all the 1841 census rolls for the county.) You may need to book a microfilm reader.

Microfilm copies of census returns can also be ordered to view at the local Church of the Latter Day Saints Family History Centre. There will be a fee payable, but you don’t have to be a member of the church

Pay-per-view sites: include





Walk the census – see the enumerator’s round at the front of each folio.

Look at maps,

Photographs – in books and online.

Books – both local history books and novels. Try Charles Dickens for life in London and particularly the workhouse; George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ novels for Victorian soldiers ; Arnold Bennett’s ‘Clayhanger’ for life in the Potteries, and ‘Imperial Place’ for life of hotel staff – and books such as ‘The Victorian Farm’ or ‘The Victorian Pharmacy’.

Check for dates of birth of siblings/cousins

Check out occupations in Trade Directories. Shire Publication books explain occupations in more detail: these are useful and reasonably priced.

Visit museums such as the Black Country Living Museum or Bantock House.

Visit National Trust properties such as Wightwick Manor (particularly the servant’s quarters) or the back-to-back properties in Birmingham.

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