Census Returns

A guide to the census returns for England and Wales, 1841-1911; with invaluable information for family and social historians, especially when used with other resources like maps and directories.

Historical background

By the late 18th century the Industrial Revolution had resulted in great changes in employment and population movement. Governments wanted greater knowledge of their populations for military, economic and social planning. The first UK census was taken in 1801, though along with the censuses of 1811, 1821 and 1831 this contained mainly statistical information. Most of these returns were destroyed, and only a few local copies have survived in archives (including a few Derbyshire parishes) or in newspaper reports. Most of these early censuses are of limited value to the family historian, being without names of inhabitants. The England and Wales census has continued to be taken every 10 years. The 100-year rule applies with regards to access, meaning the 1921 census cannot be viewed until 2022.

Dates taken

It’s important to remember that the census only gives a snapshot of a given place on a given Sunday evening in spring, once every ten years (see dates below). People were expected to be mainly at home, but remember that your ancestor could be away from home that night, visiting or working elsewhere.

  • 1841: 7 June
  • 1851: 30 March
  • 1861: 7 April
  • 1871: 2 April
  • 1881: 3 April
  • 1891: 5 April
  • 1901: 31 March
  • 1911: 2 April
What you can expect to find

Names, ages and relationships of family members; addresses in some cases; occupations; birthplaces. Sometimes the wife’s maiden name can be inferred. Human error is there at every stage of the process: what the householder told the enumerator; what he heard; what was copied into the books; and importantly, the indexing: there are many mistakes in the online indexes. Keep an open mind and use lateral thinking and alternative spellings. Full addresses are often not given, especially in smaller places or in earlier censuses, but there is a description of the parts of the parish covered at the start of each section. The Schedule Number in the first column should not be read as a house number; it is a rolling enumeration household by household. Street indexes are available for larger towns, plus some locally-compiled name indexes.

The 1841 census gives much less information than the others and does not include the relationship to head of household (this has to be inferred) or the birthplace (only a yes/no answer to the question “born in same county?”).  Ages over 15 tend to be approximate; and it contains many people born in the 18th century.  From 1851, in addition to the relationship to head of household and birthplace, the census also includes a note about any disabilities.  More detailed addresses tend to be included from 1901 depending on the size of the town/village in question.

From 1911, there is one page per household (plus a cover page) and the householder themselves usually completed the form so you can now see your ancestor’s handwriting.  The return also now gives number of years married, number of children born, including those who have died. Note: some women abstained in protest over lack of the vote.

How to access the returns online

All public computers in Derbyshire Libraries and the Record Office have free access to Ancestry and Find My Past, which both provide access to the England and Wales census returns 1841-1911, including a digital copy of the original page. The emphasis is on searching by surname, though Ancestry also has a county/civil parish browsing option and for some years Find My Past has an address search facility. For Scotland only a transcript is included, there are no images. Ancestry also includes census returns for the USA and Canada; Find My Past for Ireland, USA, Australia and New Zealand.

Derbyshire returns for 1841-1901 can also be accessed on microfilm. The place name card index to help you find the right reel. It is advisable to book a microfilm reader in advance as space is limited. For social historians wanting an overview of a locality, its employment, population and so on, microfilm can be a quicker option than waiting for each page to download online, and internet sites tend to assume you want to search by name.

Modern census and the 1939 Register

The UK census continued to be taken every ten years; unfortunately the 1931 returns were accidentally destroyed by fire in the 1940s and no return was made in 1941 due to World War II (see 1939 below). Personal information cannot be viewed until 100 years have elapsed. However, the Local Studies Library has some statistical information for Derbyshire from 1921 to 2001 (2001 has individual printouts for each parish), and statistics for 2011 can be viewed online at http://observatory.derbyshire.gov.uk; this site also includes mid-year population projections.

The 1939 National Register was taken as an emergency measure at the outbreak of World War II. It is available online via Find My Past and Ancestry, though records of people younger than 100 and still alive, or who died after 1991 are officially closed.

Other sources similar to the census

Published transcripts for the Domesday Book, 1086; Derbyshire Feet of Fines, 1323-1546 and Hearth Tax Returns, 1662-1670 are available in Local Studies, as is the 1851 Religious Census (on microfilm for Derbyshire only). Original muster rolls for the militia, 18th-19th centuries, and the “Domesday” Valuation Office Survey of 1911 are available via the archive search room.

Further Reading: a few books to help you
  • Christian, Peter (2014) Census: the expert guide
  • Jolly, Emma (2013) Tracing your ancestors using the census
  • Levitan, Katherine (2011) A cultural history of the British census

See also The National Archives guides to the census and 1939 register.

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