Your guide to Census Returns in England and Wales

Census Returns are completed so an official record can be maintained of households and their occupants at the relevant date, being compiled every 10 years since 1801. Very little detail was recorded then as the government merely required a headcount. Very few of these original censuses survive. It was only in 1841 that names of all the household occupants began to be recorded.  The census was not taken in 1941 because of World War 2.

You are only able to view up to the 1911 census in Record Offices because it is felt people who may still be alive will not want their details published.  Census Returns from 1921 are kept by the Office of National Statistics and will be released after 100 years from the census date have passed.

The census was taken in earlier centuries in very much the same way it is today - heads of households were responsible for providing details of the persons living in the abode at midnight on the appropriate date.

Sometimes a household head misunderstood and wrote down all members of the family whether they were living in the house or not, with some recording people who had died, but only family members living there should really have been recorded.  

These census schedules were collected by the enumerator who then entered the details into a book. It was not unheard of for the enumerator to misinterpret the writing of the household head or to fill in the Return himself if household members were illiterate.

It was not uncommon for the enumerator to mishear what was being said, so he may have recorded the information incorrectly.  The schedules were destroyed many years ago, but the books still survive and are kept by the National Archives.

UK Census Dates

1841 6th June 1841
1851 31st March 1851
1861 8th April 1861
1871 3rd April 1871
1881 4th April 1881
1891 6th April 1891
1901 1st April 1901
1911 3rd April 1911

A street index is available for most English and Welsh towns and cities, but there is no index for villages. 

You may find some census returns are not easy to read because the writing could have faded over time, especially if the original census was written in pencil.  You may find the spelling of a surname changed over the years, e.g. Falkner, Faulkner, Faulkener, Faulkner etc.

When looking at a census if you find a family has disappeared it is worth considering whether they emigrated. If a single man has disappeared and you cannot find a death record in the GRO Index, you should consider whether he joined the armed services or had gone to prison.

Where to find the Census Returns

Most Record Offices hold 1841-1901 Returns for their local areas. These can be viewed at the National Archives, who also provide access to the 1911 Census.

The National Library of Wales holds Censuses from 1841-1901 on microfiche for all of Wales. They state they can offer access to 1911 Census.

You can also access free census records online at freecen which is transcribed by volunteers and contains partially complete indexes, although more information is being added all the time.

It is also possible to examine United Kingdom Census Records of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England at Census Finder.

1841 Census

The 1841 Census is accessible at Find My Past, The Genealogist, and Ancestry. Several different subscriptions are available at both of these sites.

1851-1901 Censuses

You can search the 1851-1901 Censuses online at Find My Past, The Genealogist and Ancestry. Several different subscriptions are available at both of these sites.

1911 Census

You can search this census on-line at Find My Past, The Genealogist and Ancestry. Several different subscriptions are available at both of these sites.

Please peruse my guides to the 1841 Census, 1851 to 1901 Censuses and the 1911 Census. I have also written guides to understanding the census reference and how to interpret census information.

> Census Returns


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