skip to content

Census Returns (England, Wales, Channel Islands & Isle of Man)

Nature of Source

Records form the population count and social data taken every ten years. The census is essentially a record of all individuals at a particular location on census day, whether a residential dwelling or an institution. The procedure for taking the census involved the enumerator delivering a form or schedule to the head of household with areas divided into enumeration districts. The person completed the schedule and handed the form to the enumerator after the night of the census. In the event of illiteracy, the enumerator copied down answers orally from the head of household. The enumerator later copied the census returns into enumerator books (the authorities destroyed the original returns) and handed them into the registrar. The registrar then sent the returns to the central office in London.

For the 1911 census machines were used for the first time to tabulate the results directly from the household schedules.

Public access to census returns is closed for a hundred years and none was taken in 1941. The whole of the 1931 census including schedules and enumeration books were accidentally destroyed in a fire at a store at the Office of Works in Hayes in 1942.

A form of census substitute known as the 1939 Register is available to the general public. The information was gathered at the beginning of WWII by an Act of Parliament known as the National Registration Act 1939. The Act required the registration of each member of every household in England and Wales as of the night of Friday 29th September 1939, known as National Registration Day. Each household member then received a National Registration Number, and an identity card which was used for obtaining a ration book later.Information gathered for each person was their full name, sex, address, date of birth, marital status, occupation and whether a member of the armed forces or reserves. Findmypast, in partnership with The National Archives, has made records of the 40 million civilians held in the 1939 register available online. In 1939 the country was divided into more than 1400 administrative areas, each of which was assigned a three letter code. A forth letter has been appended to the end of the code which specifies the enumeration district. A table of all the codes and areas here. Records of people younger than 100 and still alive, or who died after 1991 are officially closed. See here for a guide on using the Register.

Access to the register is available to those with a Britain and World findmypast subscription and by using separately purchased credits. You can search for free for an individual or address to bring up a list of results. For details of applying in Scotland from National Records of Scotland see here.

The 1801-1831 census were headcounts only and were mostly destroyed. A few returns with personal data survive and are located in CROs. However, they can provide statistical summaries. Be aware that the census returns are littered with mistakes some intentional and some accidental; some made by the enumerator and some by the subject. This arose due to widespread illiteracy, mishearing by the enumerator, illegible handwriting or the failing memory of those enumerated. 'Dressmaker' and 'Of independent means' were common euphemisms for women working as prostitutes. In towns few houses were numbered until the end of the 19th century and many streets were renumbered or renamed. Only the online 1881, 1901 and 1911 censuses can be searched by address. The Historical Streets Project provides online access at The National Archive's Your Archives to street indexes for the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1891 census. The streets are listed in alphabetical order for each registration district and give the full National Archives reference.

First names may have been recorded in their diminutive form and some enumerators themselves abbreviated names such as Jas for James. Also be aware that transcriptions and indexes can have numerous errors so try a variety of search strategies and try different providers. 

When searching online census transcriptions, remember that the vast majority of the population were recorded in the censuses. Use a variety of search strategies and providers if an individual is proving difficult to track down.Some people were away from home on census night working away from home, visiting friends or staying at a hotel and are collectively known as 'Census Strays'. Others may have been a patient in a hospital or an asylum or other institutions such as workhouses. Unfortunately it was common practice to enumerate an inmate only by their initial plus surname. A child missing from a census could have been be staying with relatives on census night or possibly living on a permanent basis with them. Others might have been residing in a workhouse or orphanage. However it is possible that the person being searched was not at any dwelling on census night or was simply not enumerated or even changed their name. It is also possible that the person was away from the country especially as overseas travel became increasingly affordable in the 19th century.

A single forward slash in the books indicates the end of a household whilst a double forward slash indicates the end of a building. When looking at a census form remember that the year is rarely shown on the page and the schedule number is not the house number. Ages were often struck through by the census collector checking off entries. Always search surrounding streets for other family members. If a child's birthplace (especially the eldest) is shown different from that of the parents or of the census place, it could indicate that the mother had returned to her family's home for the first birth. This could be a vital clue showing her childhood address. Some people may not be where expected as they were visiting another area or were serving in the army.

A person missing from the census might have been serving abroad in the armed services. No returns were made for the armed forces in the 1841 and 1851 censuses. From 1861 the census recorded Royal Navy officer and crew at sea on special forms, although returns were made for 1841 and 1851 but have been lost. Census crew lists for 1861, 1871 and 1901 are available at the The Genealogist. The Census crew lists contain data about Naval personnel both foreign and abroad, as well as information on the crews of non-naval vessels in UK ports. The 1911 census enumerated all servicemen and women serving in the arm or navy whether stationed here or abroad. For an index of Index to Royal Navy ships that were at sea or in ports abroad on the night of the 1901 census see here. Merchant Navy seamen were recorded only if in port from 1851 with the system of enumeration undergoing a number of revisions over the years. For more detailed information on the Merchant Navy see here, here and here.

The 1911 census consists of the original household schedules which were completed by the head of household, in previous census years the enumerator copied the information from the schedules into enumerator’s books. Only a small space was left on the schedule for the address details which were completed by the householder. In addition to the householder schedules, the enumerators' summary books provide a detailed description of each district and were compiled by the enumerator from information supplied on the household schedules and are available at Findmypast. For a guide to the 1911 census references see here. It is estimated that several thousand Suffrage supporters boycotted the 1911 census.

In some cases whole pieces of the census are missing or severely damaged. For a list of missing census returns see the findmypast article Census for England, Wales and Scotland: missing pieces. Check with local societies if damaged pieces have been transcribed. For example the Manchester & Lancashire FHS have transcribed 'lost' parts of the 1851 census. See for more information. These 'lost' returns are available to search online at

Also look for one-off local census and population lists. These censuses were often taken for taxation, charitable or religious reasons. Consult two books, one by Gibson & Medlycott and the other by Chapman (see below) for more details of locating these sources.

For those missing from census returns or unable to find, see other population listings including:
Directories, Trade, Professional, Telephone & Street
Electoral Registers or Burgess Rolls
Rate Books
Return of Owners of Land, 1873
Tithe Award Records/Apportionments
Valuation Office Field Books & Maps

For pre-census population listings see:
Fire Insurance Registers, Plans and Maps
Hearth Tax, 1662-1689
Hundred Rolls, 1279
Lay Subsidy Rolls, 1275-1665 (including the Great Subsidy of 1524/25)
Muster Rolls, 1285-1642
Poll Tax Returns, 1377-1698
Protestation Oath Rolls, 1641-1642
Rate Books

Where Found

The National Archives (HO 107, Home Office: Census Returns, June 6 1841; HO 107, Home Office: Census Returns March 30 1851; RG 9, General Register Office: Census Returns, April 7 1861; RG 10, General Register Office: Census Returns, 02 April 1871; RG 11, General Register Office: Census Returns, 03 April 1881; RG 12, General Register Office: Census Returns, 05 April 1891; RG 13, General Register Office: Census Returns, 31 March 1901; RG 14, General Register Office: Census Schedules, 31 December 1911)
The National Archives
(RG18, Office of Population and Censuses and Surveys: General Register Office: Reference Maps of Registrar's Districts. The series consists of printed maps with manuscript additions, mainly showing registration districts and sub-districts in England and Wales, at the time of the population censuses of 1861 [London only], 1871 [except London], 1891 and 1921)
Society of Genealogists (Some copies and indexes covering 1841-1861)
County Record Offices (Local census returns and transcriptions: ARCHON Directory: Find the details of a UK archive from a searchable list of over 2,500 archives The catalogue can be found on the Discovery home page)
Family History Societies (Local census returns and transcriptions)
LDS FamilySearch Centers (1881 census transcription)

Period Covered

1841 - 1911

Genealogical Value

Place of residence (from 1851 name of street, road, house number or name. From 1891 Number of rooms occupied if less than five). First name, middle name (often only initials) and surname and gender. Relationship to the head of household, usually the oldest male (not available in the 1841 census). Marital status (Not available in the 1841 census). Age, at last birthday (ages over 15 were rounded down to the nearest 5 years in the 1841 census). Occupation/profession/trade (whether in employment or of independent means from 1841. Whether master or apprentice or journeyman from 1851. Whether employer or employee from 1891. Whether an employer, worker or working on one’s own account and whether working at home or not). County and parish of birth, if born in England or Wales (a simple Yes or No is recorded in the 1841 census). Country of birth if born outside of England and Wales (In the 1841 census only an 'S' for Scotland, an 'I' for Ireland and an 'F' for foreign parts is recorded). Disabilities such as blind or deaf-and-dumb with imbecile, idiot, lunatic added from 1871 (Not available in the 1841 census).

Additional fields included in the 1911 census were: years married, total children born alive to the marriage, number of children still living and number who have died, industry employed in and nationality of those born abroad.

Further References

Annal, David. Easy Family History: The Stress-Free Guide to Starting Your Research: Bloomsbury, 2012

 Buy Now on Amazon
Chapman, Colin. Pre-1841 Censuses & Population Listings in the British Isles: Lochin Publishing, 2002 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Christian, Peter & Annal, David. Census: The Family Historian's Guide: Bloomsbury, 2014 Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy and Hampson, Elizabeth. Marriage, Census and Other Indexes for Family Historians: FFHS, 2000  Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy and Medlycott, Mervyn. Local Census Listings 1522-1930: FFHS, 2001 Buy Now on Amazon
Hanson, John. How To Get the Best from the 1911 Census: SoG, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon
Higgs, Edward. Making Sense of the Census Revisited: Institute of Historical Research, 2005 Buy Now on Amazon
Higgs, Edward. A Clearer Sense of the Census: HMSO, 1996 Buy Now on Amazon
Higgs, Edward. Life, Death and Statistics: Civil Registration, Censuses and the Work of the General Register Office, 1836–1952: Local Population Studies, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Jolly, Emma. Tracing Your Ancestors Using the Census: A Guide for Family Historians: Pen & Sword Books, 2013  
Lawton, Richard. Census and Social Structure: An Interpretative Guide to Nineteenth Century Censuses for England and Wales: Routledge, 1978 Buy Now on Amazon
Lumas, Susan. Making Use of the Census: PRO Publications, 2002  Buy Now on Amazon
McLaughlin, Eve. The Victorian Censuses: Use and Interpretation: Varneys Press, 2001  Buy Now on Amazon
McLaughlin, Eve. The 1901 Census and How to Tackle It: Varneys Press, 2002  Buy Now on Amazon
Raymond, Stuart, A. Census: 1801-1911 A Guide for the Internet Era: Family History Partnership: 2009  Buy Now on Amazon
Riggs, Geoff, Distribution of Surnames in the 1881 British Census, London: Guild of One-Name Studies, 2001  

The EurekA Partnership: Various titles containing transcriptions of Pre-1841 Census returns covering Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Worcestershire


Guides to the Census (Ancestry Solutions: Census Quick Reference Charts)
(Family Tree: How to find ancestors on the census) (Findmypast: Search tips for the 1911 census) (Findmypast: Expert advice 1911 Census) (FamilySearch Wiki: England Census: Further Information and Description) (Society of Genealogists: Guide Three: Census Records England and Wales) (Keighley and District Family History Society: Research Guide: Census Details) (British Genealogy: Guides to the census including Census Dates and Census Schedule Numbers) (Finding Your Ancestors in the 1911 UK Census, by Juliana Smith) (Abbreviations used on Census Transcripts) ( Census Abbreviations)!-census-frame.htm (A Quick Introduction to Census Returns) (GENUKI: United Kingdom and Ireland Census: General information and links related to the census) (GENUKI: Consult the county pages for the whereabouts of census returns returns) (Office for National Statistics: Census history) (The instructions to the enumerators covering the 1841-1901 censuses)
(LostCousins: Automated name matching system identifying possible relatives based on entering information from selected US, Canadian, British, or Irish censuses)
(The Instructions to the Enumerators from the 1841 Census) (Abbreviations Used On Census Returns)
(Anguline Research Archives: I’ve lost an ancestor in the online censuses! How can I find him/her?, by Roy Stockdill) (Listing of reports into each years census including statistical analysis of surnames and occupations. Guides to using the census and its history)
(LostCousins Special Edition Newsletter: Inside the 1939 Register) (Office for National Statistics: 100 years of change- the census of England and Wales, 1911-2011. Take a look at fascinating changes in the structure of the population of England and Wales over a century) (Guidance on reading Victorian handwriting)
Roads and Streets (Victorian London A-Z Street Index from Gendocs, archived copy) (Victorian London A-Z Street Index) (London Street name changes between 1929 and 1945) (Road Name Changes in London) (Place look up for the 1891 census) (List of 1881 and 1891 Registration Districts for which Street Indexes have been published) (Cassini Publishing: The National Archive Registration District Historical Maps. Online digital versions of the original Registration District maps from the 1871 census. This set of maps is the only known collection of this type in the world) (London Postal Districts and Area Names) (The Lost London Street Index) (Historical Streets Project: Online access at The National Archive's Your Archives to street indexes for the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871 and 1891 census. The streets are listed in alphabetical order for each registration district and give the full National Archives reference) (A guide to the alleys, courts passages and yards of central London, By Ivor Hoole) (Official reports, legislation and essays on the censuses including statistical analysis. The documents on the site include indexes to parishes, townships and places used in the official reports)
Occupation and Employment and Names (Family Tree Service: Census Occupations: List of occupations and employment that might be found in census returns)
(Obsolete Occupations in Genealogy) (Victorian Occupations) (FamilySearch Research Wiki: Traditional Nicknames in Old Documents. Alphabetical list of historic personal nicknames and what they represent) (Lists of first names & surnames taken from the 1891 census)
Census Forms (CensusTools. Downloadable spreadsheets for recording census information) ( UK Census Forms)
Whereabouts of Transcriptions (Census schedules and listings, 1801-1831, by Richard Wall, Matthew Woollard and Beatrice Moring. University of Essex, 2004. The report gives the whereabouts of known surviving returns for England) (Links to online census transcriptions) (Links to online census records) (Links to online census records) (Links to online genealogy records & useful information) (Whereabouts of transcripts & indexes) (Links to national and local companies and organisations offering online access to census transcriptions) (Links to companies and organisations selling local census transcriptions) (Search 1841-1901 census sites with 'one step' search forms)

Online Databases

National Coverage (1841-1911 census transcriptions with digitised images. Features include a first name or surname search facility. The 1911 collection consists only of the Enumerator Summary Books and also links to the UK Maps, 1896–1904 supplied by Cassini Historical Maps which means you can link to a map revealing the area they lived in) (1841-1911 census transcriptions and digitised images. The 1911 returns cover London and a number of counties with high resolution colour images. Features include a name or keyword search facility, ‘profession field’ search and other enhanced searches) (1841-1911 census transcriptions and images. Features include an address search. Pre-1841 census returns include: Shrewsbury St Julian's Parish, 1831 Census; 1801 &1821 Kent, Dartford Census; Corfe Castle and District 1790 Census; Nether Hallam, Sheffield 1831 Census) (1881 British Census, Crew and Passengers on Ships Arriving in New South Wales. Discover your ancestor missing from the 1881 British census in this index of crew and passengers arriving in Sydney, Australia from January to March of 1881) (1911 census transcriptions and digitised images)
(Roots UK: 1841-1901 census transcriptions and digitised images) (Genes Reunited: 1841-19011 census transcriptions and digitised images. The 1911 census includes a mapping tool to allow users to map where their ancestors were at the time it was taken) (Free access to indexes and transcriptions for the 1881 census but with no original images. Also free searches of the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1891 and 1901 censuses with an option to view original images at the fee based (FreeCEN: The site provides free access to census transcriptions covering 1841 to 1891 including occupation transcriptions. Check the site to see a listing of counties by census year with the number of records online for each. Then select Details to see which pieces/places are online for that county) (1841-1901 census transcriptions with digitised images. Free searches but pay to view full record. Operated by S & N Genealogy Supplies) (Family History Societies Online: Census returns transcriptions covering England and Wales. The census material is free to search once registered)
Regional and Other (Transcriptions providing partial county coverage for parts of some counties) (Durham Records Online: 1841 census transcriptions for all of County Durham; 1851 through 1891 census transcriptions for many County Durham communities, plus 1901 for Easington district) (The 1891 London Census Transcription. Features include first name, surname, birthplace and occupation search plus the facility to browse by street and house) (London, Westminster Marylebone Census 1821 & 1831. The dataset contains over 22,000 census results covering Marylebone in the City of Westminster. Every record consists of a transcript and an image of the original document) (1831 Census, Nether Hallam, Sheffield) (1801 and 1821 Kent, Dartford Census) (Pre-1841 Devon Censuses and Population Listings. A GENUKI/Devon Transcription Project) (Transcribed data covering 40 square miles around Wirksworth and Matlock, Derbyshire. Data sets include Parish Records 1600-1900, Derbyshire Wills 1525-1928, census returns, Petty sessions, Memorial Inscriptions, Board of Guardians, Hearth Tax and others) (The Weald of Kent, Surrey and Sussex: Lists of named individuals extracted from sources including census returns and directories from towns and villages in the region as well as maps, pictures, books and documents) (1841 Channel Islands census transcriptions) (Family History Societies: Local census returns and transcriptions) (Online Parish Clerks: The project is run by volunteers who collect and transcribe parish records for a chosen Parish and make the data available for free online. The range of information covered includes Apprentice Indentures, Census Returns, Parish Registers, Bastardy Bonds, Settlement Certificates & Removal Orders, Militia/Muster records, Directories, Land Tax Assessments, Workhouse/Poor Law records, Churchwardens Accounts, Tithe Apportionments, Wills, Poor Rate Payers, Lay Subsidies, Protestation Returns, MIs, Church Memorials and Hearth Tax records. Old parish maps and photos are often included)

CD Roms

Local Family History Societies (Local census returns and transcriptions)
Archive CD Books (Including the 1861 Royal Navy returns, check site for coverage)
S & N Genealogy Supplies (Including the 1861 & 1871 Royal and Merchant Navy returns)
(Calderdale, Yorkshire Pre-1841 Censuses; Census of Bedworth, Warwickshire 1821; Marylebone 1821 and 1831 Householder's census surname index. Search the site for other early census returns and parish listings supplied by a number of family history organisations)
Your Old Books & Maps (Census Classification of Occupations, 1931)
Stepping Stones (Specialist publisher of census data on CD)
British Data Archive (Publisher of census data on CD for every county in England and Wales for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1891, 1901 as well as selected counties for 1881) (Links to companies and organisations selling local census transcriptions on CD)