Just as in the United States, British censuses provide priceless information concerning ancestral families. However, when American genealogists accustomed to using U.S. censuses decide to venture into the British realm, they need to learn a few tricks. British censuses were taken every 10 years, but not in the same years as in the United States. They provide more detailed birthplaces, the government releases census data 100 years after its creation, and until two years ago, accessing specific families has been complex.
The British government began collecting population censuses in 1801. They continued the practice every 10 years, but the records for most areas do not name individuals until the year 1841. For England, Wales, and Scotland, that is the year for which the first genealogically valuable census exists. Most for Ireland no longer exist • unfortunately, the first all-encompassing census for the Emerald Isle was taken in 1901.
For England, Wales, and Scotland, the censuses between 1851 and 1901 basically contain the same information. Researchers find house addresses, names of all individuals in the household, ages, relationships, gender, marital status, occupations and specific birthplaces (towns or parishes and counties). The 1841 census varies in that it is not as detailed as later censuses: relationships to the head of household, accurate ages, and specific birthplaces. The government instructed census takers to round ages of all individuals over 15 down to the nearest five-year interval, so a person aged 29 is listed as 25. In addition, they only asked individuals if their birth had occurred in our outside of the county of current residence, lacking the specificity of later censuses.
Accessing families listed on the censuses for 1841 through 1901 follows a different procedure than used in the United States. In the U.S., genealogists are accustomed to having head of household name indexes beginning in 1790. Until recently, the British has not endeavored to produce census indexes that cover the entire population. Organizations have completely indexed the 1881, 1891 and 1901 Censuses, each released within the last few years. Many cities and some counties have complete name indexes and Ancestry.com is currently indexing the 1871 British Census, which will soon be available in its entirety online. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City has microfilm copies of all British censuses from 1841 through 1891, but it does not have the 1901 census, which is available at The National Archives, outside of London.
Breakdown of current methods to access British Censuses1:
• 1841 • microfilm
• 1851 • microfilm
• 1861 • microfilm
• 1871 • microfilm and www.ancestry.com (subscription)
• 1881 • www.familysearch.org (free)
• 1891 • www.ancestry.com (subscription)
• 1901 • microfilm and <www.census.pro.gov.uk(England and Wales online • pay per view)
Strategies for finding ancestors in pre-1871 censuses include using name indexes and street indexes. Genealogists have indexed most of the 1851 census; however, many indexes cover only single parishes. Since England and Wales comprised more than 11,000 parishes, these indexes are not altogether useful when searching on a county or nationwide level. The 1841 and 1861 censuses have received less attention from indexers and in order to find ancestors, an address must be known. Civil registration, parish registers and directories provide addresses. Always search for an address that matches existing census years. After identifying this information, use street indexes to locate families. Street indexes are available at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. To find them on the catalog, follow this path: Great Britain>Census [Year] Indexes>Street Index. This process becomes more tedious if ancestors migrated, necessitating usage of currently non-existent nationwide indexes. Lastly, locate the actual microfilm copies of census records on the Family History Library Catalog by searching for towns or parishes and then referring to the "Census" category.
Census records provide glimpses into our ancestors' lives and homes. Thorough research requires checking all available censuses. They lead to many other valuable records and if Americans mind the differences, they can learn the British system.
1. This list does not account for commercial digitized censuses available on CD-ROM and other media that exists for various locations and time periods. Family historians may also access all censuses on microfilm.