Research using the Census

Easy access to census returns have made accessing family history comparatively easy but how do you get the most out of Census information?

The Government has conducted national census's every 10 years since 1901 in an attempt to map the population and help it's planning.

From 1801 to 1831 the Census was complied by local officials usually the Parish overseers of the poor.

These returns varied greatly in content and accuracy and sadly few survive for our area.

All census returns for this period that survive can be found at Essex Records Office.

An example of a useful surviving record is the 1811 census for Woodham Walter.

From 1841 to 2001 The Government took control of the census and as a result comparatively accurate records of Census returns are available.

Data Protection laws limit the availability of data on people to allow free access to records over 100 years old so internet access is limited to returns from 1841 to 1901.

What information does the census provide?

Firstly at the top the administrative area, Parliamentary Constituency and Town or Village

Then reading across the page

Road, street and/or house name

Full name of the inhabitants

Relation to the Head of House ( Person listed first)

Age and Sex


Where they were born

Any other information pertinent

There are occasionally small variations amongst census returns but the above information is consistently found although the 1841 census contains slightly less.

Although the system is basically reliable it is never safe to take the census return totally at face value.

In the 1800's many people were illiterate and could not spell their names hence the recording was down to the census taker.

Thus Johnson could become Johnsun,  Jonson. Johnstone, Jonsen or even Chonsen.

Many pet names were used which again gave variable so that Margaret could be Marge, Maggie, Madge or even something totally different like Bunny.

Accurate ages were again variable , many people didn't know their dates of birth and enumerators would guess on appearance.

For the 1841 census enumerators were instructed to round down the ages to the nearest 10 years which gives enormous variations.

Census dates

The dates that the census were taken is quite important in fixing ages as peoples age is given at the date of the census.

If the 1891 census shows someone is age 30 years the knowledge that the census was taken on 5 April 1891 helps pinpoint their date of birth as between 6 April 1860 and 5 April 1861.

1801 10 March
1811 27 May
1821 28 May
1831 30 May
1841 6 June
1851 30 March
1861 7 April
1871 2 April
8181 3 April
1891 5 April
1901 31 March
1911 2 April
1921 19 June

Checking census online is expensive!

Online Census Returns normally charge for their information.

The two main listings are Ancestry  and Find My Past.

Both operate in similar ways in that they offer free registration that will allow searched and provide very basic free information.

Further details then require credits which cost from 50 pence a result or they require a subscription.

The short term 3 month subscriptions often enough time for a family historians to carry out a basic research on their family.

Multiple searches, red herrings etc can all make searching quite expensive.

The 1881 census was transcribed by Family Search  ( Church of Jesus Christ and the Latter Day Saints) and is available free on their web site as well as ancestry and other sites. This allows you to fully research your family in 1881 free of charge and to become aware of how to use census information which will help when you have to pay for data from other census returns.

One important feature that the paid census sites allow is to view the original.

The census returned were completed handwriting which varied greatly in  neatness.

Transcribing was carried out in centres and  the transcribers quickly became experts at deciphering bad handwriting although they would not be aware of the peculiarities of place names, street names and even family names which means that viewing the original can sometimes bring an unexpected breakthrough.

It is always worth checking the original against the printed version immediately available.

It is also often worth printing off a copy for your records or saving a copy on your computer  for future use.

How important are census returned to family historians?

Census returned are usually the first point of call in researching family history.

They provide the basic information and as importantly provide a guide in where to look for Parish Records etc in relation to virtually the whole UK  population who was alive between 1841 ands 1901.

Despite the warning about their problems their value far outweighs any problems and anyone researching their family history should make full use of the census information.