Looking back, the census returns were probably my main starting point for my own family research, after searching through the mountain of Birth, Marriage and Death certificates that my mum had kept for our family. Suddenly a whole new world opened up for me... so many people. It felt like a little portal into the world of the Victorian age had suddenly revealed itself to me - so many names, occupations I'd never heard of, places, unusual names and wonderful italic handwriting. Some of it totally illegible but you can't have everything. The census returns became an important part of my family research for some time and now they've become incredibly useful for my house history research as well.
The first census took place on 10 March 1801, details of individual names were not recorded but it gave details of numbers of inhabitants so the government could get an idea of the population and the number of dwellings in the country. The main census as we know it today, started in 1841 and was taken on a Sunday night in Spring, when it was thought people were most likely to be at home and not off trying to find work. They showed an increase in the population by 52% in the space of 50 years!
1841 - 6 June
1851 - 30 March
1861 - 7 April
1871 - 2 April
1881 - 3 April
1891 - 5 April
1901 - 31 March
1911 - 2 April
You can expect to find the following information on census returns:
First name, surname, age, address, occupation, relationship to head of the house, place of birth.
As the years went on the returns became more detailed and required more information. 1911 was the most detailed census of all, often referred to as the 'fertility census' as it required more detailed information on the children as well as the houses themselves. So later returns you will also find:
Number of years married, number of children living and deceased, number of rooms, nationality, infirmity, more detailed information about occupation and industry, postal address
The house could be listed as inhabited, empty or building as well as the number of rooms and the type of property. Those present in the house are recorded, including the number of years married, and the number of children living and deceased. The returns are fairly detailed and provide a good amount of information for your house history research, although there are gaps as many women boycotted the census and refused to give the information, in a stand about being given the vote. A summary book was also issued by the enumerators, and these can also be found on Find My Past.
The census returns can help the House Historian in a number of ways - not only can they tell you who was living in your house at the time, but they might also reveal information about your neighbours, past names of the property or reveal number changes, tell you how many rooms it had and reveal changes that might have been made to the size of the house, it might also provide information on other properties which no longer exist and which help to shape the history of your street.
Obviously there are pitfalls to the returns and as they were only taken every 10 years you will mostly likely have gaps, unless people remained in their house for some time! So your findings will need to be complimented with other records.
Also, one must remember the likelihood of human error. The schedules for the census were left with each householder and were collected by the enumerator on the day following the census. They then entered all the information into the summary book. It is reasonable to assume that mistakes will have been made both in the copying of the householders information made by the enumerator into the summary book, and also possibly further down the line as information has been transcribed and recorded onto Ancestry and Find My Past. Much of the handwriting is very difficult to read, and as spelling was not necessarily standardised and since people often had their own variations this can lead to frustrating brick walls and dead ends. Many people were illiterate and for those returns as well as those that the enumerator could not read, he would have then written in the details himself as told to him by the resident.
The early census returns also rounded up peoples ages to the nearest 5 years, therefore not recording accurate ages. Similarly, not everyone always knew when they were born and following the 1891 census it was reported that both men and women often lied about their ages.
However, they can provide a starting point and we all need one of those, wherever that point might be! And the information can be a great start to helping you delve into other records such as enclosure and tithe maps and records, poor rates and records, church records, manorial records, land records and lease agreements.
The census has helped me no end with both my family research and the house histories I have bene doing. So here are a few top tips that I’ve made – Things I’ve learnt!
Have a rough idea of when you house was built - you can use Land registry records, or maybe local history books will give you an idea. For more recent homes, I've found local residents to be a hive of information too!
See if you can find out the relevant county or registration district - be aware, that sometimes these changed. You may need to consult your local reference or local studies library to let you know if there were any changes.
Be prepared to try variations on the name of your road, and always tick boxes that allow for variants. Spellings were not standardised, and those completing the returns often had their own variations on names therefore it is important to be aware of the variations that came happen, in road names, house names and occupant names as well.
Similarly variations can happen on the spelling of peoples names - use nicknames, use the wildcards, miss out middle names and spell names wrongly!
Some addresses were not written in full and you may find that house numbers are missed out altogether. Therefore you may need to cross reference with another census.
On Find My Past, for 1911 you can search by people or address and for the other years you can search by street address. Be aware, that sometimes you do need to play around with your spellings in order to find the place! Use the wildcards, using a * to replace a letter.
Sometimes it is better to think ‘less is more’ and leave out all the information you think you know and search with a limited number of ideas.
I might also add a new little discovery of mine which is the 1939 register, available on Find My Past which brings us just a little bit closer to the present while we wait for the 1921 census to appear. Again you need to pay for this, but this is a nice little addition - although again you might find gaps. No-one under 100 years old can be viewed or anyone who has died since 1991, but again this might be a starting point.
Both Ancestry and Find My Past have census returns online for viewing, although as both are subscription services if you want to download and view images and transcriptions you will need to pay for these. But UK Census online provides a free service for searching the returns https://www.ukcensusonline.com/ - however you can only search for names rather than addresses.
Find My Past www.findmypast.co.uk
Ancestry, 1801 Census returns, www.1911census.org.uk/1801.htm
National Archives, Census Records, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/census-records/ - this gives a handy fact sheet about using the census returns with links to archived pages from the National Archives Historical House Project.
A Vision of Britain Through Time, http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/census/index.jsp - this details reports made from the census finds up to 1971.
A Vision of Britain Through Time, A Guide to Census Reports,
Family Search familysearch.org/search/collection/list#page=1&recordType=Census