UK Research Guide | The UK Census
Censuses are surveys conducted by the government to discover information about the country’s population. These are unique because they include all citizens at the same time and ask the same set of questions to everyone.
In England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, one day has been set aside every ten years to hold a census since 1801 (except during WWII). As the early census returns for 1801-1831 generally do not contain names or personal details, the most useful census material available to family historians today are from the 1841 census returns and onwards. However, census material less than 100 years old cannot be viewed since it is protected by the 100-year rule to protect the privacy of living individuals.
While the 1841 census offers the least amount of detail, it provides valuable information for family historians:
The returns from 1851 onward are more useful as they also reveal:
Every household was required to fill out an individual census schedule. Between 1841 and 1901 enumerators copied all information from a household schedule into enumeration books before destroying the originals. These enumeration books are the census records that can be viewed online. Special enumeration books were completed for institutions such as workhouses, barracks and hospitals. In 1851, special schedules for shipping vessels were introduced, but none are known to survive for that year; however, from 1861 researchers are able to search the censuses for people serving in the Royal Navy and on merchant ships, at sea and in ports at home and abroad.
As the household schedules in 1911 were analysed directly and not copied into enumeration books, researchers will see their ancestor’s completed and signed return as it was originally filled out (if their ancestor was literate). Among the special features of the 1911 census for family historians is the ability to see how long a couple has been married, how many children were living and how many have died. This census was also the first one to enumerate the overseas soldiers by name.
In Scotland, the census returns are almost identical to those in England and Wales, except for 1911, when a similar level of detail was gathered but the household schedules were copied into enumeration books just as in previous years.
In Ireland, the vast majority of 19th-century census returns were destroyed during the fire at the Four Courts in Dublin in 1922, and only the 1901 and 1911 censuses remain.
Due to a fire in England in 1931 and an absence of a census in 1941, there is a gap in the censuses from 1921 to 1951. For anyone researching ancestors who lived in the UK, the 1939 Register provides the most complete survey of the population of England and Wales during this period, making it an invaluable resource for family historians. The Register was compiled on 29 September 1939 and includes the following information for individuals:
In 1939, registration of armed forces members was handled by the military authorities, which accounts for the absence from the 1939 Register of service personnel in military, naval and air force establishments. In addition, it does not include members of the armed forces billeted in private homes, including their own. However, because conscription did not commence in earnest until January 1940, the majority of those who later fought in the armed services during WWII were still civilians in September 1939. The register does also record those members of the armed forces on leave and civilians on military bases.
There is always a reason to be cautious about the information in census returns. For instance, it is possible that someone may not have known their exact age or may have altered it for another reason or that a person’s birthplace may be the first place of which they have any memory, opposed to where they were actually born.
Other things to note:
Pictured: Rape Threshing, The Costume of Yorkshire (1814), George Walker (1781-1856)