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.

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

Heads of Households

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.  

All household occupants are defined by their relationship to the head of the household on census returns. Please use caution however when looking at this side of the information. I have come across circumstances where a niece or nephew could be either the head's niece or nephew or his wife's if he was married.

Census Schedules and the Enumerator

Census schedules were collected by the enumerator who then entered the details into a book.  If you are not familiar with the area, town addresses can be puzzling because the enumerator could choose his own route as long as he did not miss any houses.

You may discover he had not gone down a long street in full, deciding instead to cover the side streets as he made his way down the main street.

It was not unheard of for the enumerator to misinterpret the writing of the household head or to fill in the census himself if household members were illiterate.  He could also have misheard 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.

All the households had their own schedule number. The last occupants of the house were represented by the enumerator placing a diagonal line just before the name column and the last occupant of the building he defined by using a double diagonal line.

You may find there are several different households within one building, and these households could include family members, lodgers, boarders, servants and nurses. Both lodgers and boarders paid rent, but boarders ate with the main family.

Census Reference

Census Reference is the unique number each census has been allocated by the National Archives:

Year Reference
1841 HO107
1851 HO107
1861 RG9
1871 RG10
1881 RG11
1891 RG12
1901 RG13
1911 RG14

This is an example of the full Census Reference given for Bryanston Square, Upper George Street, Marylebone in the 1851 Census:

1-21 HO107/1489 518-525

23-26 HO107/1489 649-651

28-48 HO107/1489 525-531

1489 is the Census Piece and 518-525, 649-651 and 525-531 are the census folios the address can be found on. As Marylebone is such a vast area, the enumerator would have had a lot of individual books that when filled in were collected and later bound into a single book so it was easier to access. The bound book is called a census piece.

The folio number makes it easier to find the address and is at the top right hand corner of every other census page. The sheets in the original books the enumerators used were double sided so the folio number is only listed on every other page.

It was not unheard of for the person stamping the folio numbers on the page to make a mistake and either stamp consecutive sheets with the same number or to miss stamping a sheet altogether so you sometimes see 6a or even 6b for example.

A page number is also listed, but this should be ignored as this is the page number from the enumerator's individual book as stated above.

Street Indexes

A street index exists for most English and Welsh towns and cities, but there is no index for villages and so the reference includes the piece number but not any folio numbers.

One of the best ways to find out more about the Street Indexes available is to go to the Historical Streets Project.  It is a good source of information, but is now read-only.  Only the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1891 census returns have been indexed.  They are listed by Registration District, so you do need to know the rough area in which the street you are looking for was situated.

The National Archives is in the process of making their books of street indexes for the 1841-1891 census returns available on-line.

Birthplace of Occupants

The birthplace of household occupants could be very useful because it could help you to further your research, as knowing the place of birth could help you to track down an appropriate entry in the parish register or find the correct birth certificate using the GRO Index.

The occupant may have lied about their age, making it prudent to look for a few years either side. Sometimes however, and this is always disappointing for the genealogist, the occupant did not remember where they were born so the birthplace was listed simply as unknown or the column left blank.

Did your family disappear from the Census?

If you find, when looking at census returns, that 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.

Was a family member in an Institution?

When looking at census returns, you could find your ancestor had been placed in an 'institution', which was usually an establishment large enough to hold approximately 200 people such as a prison, workhouse, barracks or hospital. For example Weedon Barracks in Northamptonshire was listed separately to Weedon village. 

This meant the establishment was large enough to be classed as an enumeration district by itself. The inmates of the institution were listed, but sometimes only the initials of the inmates was noted. The people who worked in the establishment were also noted. The institution was usually put at the end of an enumeration district.

Possible Army connection?

If there is a different place of birth for every child, and one of those places was an army town such as Woolwich or Aldershot, it may be worth considering that the father may have been, or could still be, in the army and had been posted around the country, staying in different barracks. 

My own great-great-great granduncle George McJannett Botterill(latterly McJannett-Jannett) served in the Army and his daughter Eliza Jane McJannett (Jannett) was born in Woolwich in 1850. 

Of course, it could just mean the father had had to move away from his home parish in order to find work.

Writing not always easy to Read

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.

Where to find 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.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.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.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



> Census Returns


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