Building your family tree can be a very exciting part of your genealogy research. For me using UK census records helped me not only find my ancestors but also their siblings as well.
Through these records I was able to find out all sorts of information, such as where they came from, where they were living and also what they did for a living. But you need to know how to use these records in order to get the most out of them.
My family tree building adventure!
Before I give you tips on how to use UK census records I first wanted to tell you the importance of using these records. To begin with when I first started to trace my family tree I used the information that my father had already found out.
He had spent a number of years researching our genealogy before I did some exploring of my own.
He had already traced our family tree to at least six or seven generations back on a number of lines. So I had a lot of work done already for me. But I was not only interested in learning who my ancestors were but also knowing their siblings and descendants as well.
You can imagine that that was a mammoth task. Phew, I wouldn’t want to put that workload on anyone!
Credit: The National Archives UK
And that’s where censuses came in!
Using the information in these records I was able to follow the branches of Couch cousins. This would prove useful for me later when I would encounter cousins alive today. I could use what I had learned and see how they fitted into my Couch family tree.
It can become a daunting task to complete considering that some of my ancestors and their siblings had as many as 10, 11 or even 12 children. I probably bit off mo0re than I could chew when I started my own genealogy research but I had caught the bug and wanted to learn all that I could about my family tree.
So not only could I find out who my ancestors were, but also siblings and then trace their descendants. This is as well as finding out where they were born, where they lived and what their occupation was as well.
From censuses you can also see your ancestors migration. This relocation could be the result of finding work or maybe moving from a poorer area. Only by looking closer at the information in these records can you start to see your ancestors stories.
Topics discussed in this post:
The UK Census Dates
There are many tips that I can give you on how to effectively use the UK census records. But before I do I just wanted to give you a list of when the UK census was performed from 1841 through to 1911.
Knowing when these records were conducted can also give you vital clues as I will explain below.
UK census dates from 1841 to 1911:
- 1841 – 6th June (HO107)
- 1851 – 30th March (HO107)
- 1861 – 7th April (RG9)
- 1871 – 2nd April (RG10)
- 1881 – 3rd April (RG11)
- 1891 – 5th April (RG12)
- 1901 – 31st March (RG13)
- 1911 – 2nd April (RG14)
Please note: Prefix codes are included within this list. These codes will be needed if you intend to personally visit archives to view these records.
Tips on Using These Records
There is a lot of information that you can learn from the UK census records. I hope that the following tips will help you to get the most from this particular source of information.
If you do wish to add to this section with your own tip then please feel free to comment below and I will add it.
You can find census records on various sites such as Family Search (free), Ancestry and FindMyPast. It is worth noting here though that if you cannot find your ancestor within one database then try another. The transcriber may have made an error when deciphering these records and so you may have difficulty finding your ancestor on one database but easily find them on another.
Tips on using the UK census records:
- The 100 year rule – Censuses from 1921 onwards will remain closed until 100 years has lapsed. So to gain access to the 1921 census you will have to wait until 2021.
- The 1931 and 1941 – Following on from this rule you will be disappointed to learn that the 1931 census was destroyed during the Second World War. And because of the war there was no census recorded for 1941.
- The 1939 Register – But do not despair because with the onset of war a register was conducted where each UK citizen was listed. You can access this register from the Find My Past website. However, a person and their details will be blurred if their age by today’s date is less than 100. You can though ask to see the record if you can prove that that person has since died, i.e. by producing a death certificate.
What if I cannot find my ancestor?
There are many reasons why you may not find your ancestor in the UK census records. By following these tips you may actually find that illusive ancestor of yours and break down that brick wall in your research.
- Your ancestor was not born – Check when your ancestor was born, (if you do know), and the date that that census was conducted for their year of birth. If you cannot find your ancestor then chances are that they were not born by the time of the census for that year.
- Their exact year of birth – It maybe worth checking a tolerance of two years either side of your ancestor’s year of birth. Failing this then you can always increase this value to five years.
- Check the county – When searching online databases you can often select which county for your search. This will help you narrow down your search. But if you still cannot find your ancestor then check neighboring counties.
- Your ancestor’s name was recorded incorrectly – The enumerator may have incorrectly recorded your ancestor’s name wrong. This maybe because your ancestor or the enumerator did not know how to spell their name, or this information may have been given to the enumerator by a neighbor, and so may errors may have crept in to their record.
- Check the original document – If you are checking these records on sites such as Ancestry or Find My Past then it is worth checking the original document. As the information from these records have been transcribed and uploaded to the Internet there is a chance that errors may again have crept in. This is commonly because of the fancy or illegible handwriting of the enumerator which the transcriber has to decipher. And also they may not be familiar with the area and most certainly not familiar with your ancestor.
- Try different spellings – The key tip from the previous two answers is to try searching for your ancestor with different spellings of their name. You will be surprised as to what you will find. I have found my own family members recorded as ‘Cauch’, ‘Cooch’ and even ‘Cough’. So it’s worth trying this if you cannot find them.
- Use a nickname – You maybe surprised to learn that nicknames appear on these official documents. I have found many within my family. One in particular was put down as ‘Lizzie’. Her first name as you can imagine was Elizabeth.
- Try a wildcard character – If you’re struggling to find your ancestor with different spellings then you could try to use a wildcard character in your search. For example, I could try entering CO* which will come up with all sorts of surnames including Couch and Cooch.
- Entering too much information – Your ancestor may be omitted from search results because you have entered in too much information, which some of it maybe incorrect. Try to broaden your search and see what results come up.
- Living or boarding with someone – If you cannot find your ancestor then try checking to see if they were living with another family member. This is particularly useful if their name has been incorrectly recorded.
- Work from the most recent records – By this I mean check the 1911 census and work your way backwards. If you cannot find your ancestor then check if you can find their descendant and then work back.
- Were they in service – Some of your ancestors may have been employed as a house or farm servant. So it was not uncommon for them to be listed at their employer’s house on the night of the census.
- The records have been destroyed or lost – Unfortunately it is possible that your ancestor’s records may have been destroyed for whatever reason. You can though learn about your ancestry from parish records if this is the case. However, there is the possibility that these records may become available.
- Your ancestor did not record their details – This has been the case for me with a couple of ancestors of mine for the 1841 census. Unfortunately they just simply were not recorded for this Census.
Searching and recording what you have learned from these records:
Knowing when to stop collecting information and assimilating that data into your genealogy software program can actually help you with your research. I have been there before.
I have been on the thirst for knowledge and have collected so much information about my ancestors. When it came time to enter what I had found I had become overwhelmed by it all. If I didn’t see my end goal then I just might have given up hope with it all.
- Stick to one ancestor – When checking these records it is easy to go off on a tangent. You find one ancestor, then you check the censuses for their brother, and then his wife and her ancestors. You can easily go astray with this type of record, and believe me I have done this. So just stick with one ancestor and learn all that you can about him or her. Then go on to the next individual.
- Check the neighborhood – Contrary to the previous point you may want to check out who your ancestor’s neighbors were. I have been quite ‘surprised’ to find relatives living near to my ancestor. Make a note of these finds and come back to them later.
- Don’t go overboard – I have spent hours hoarding all this information only then to become overwhelmed with how much I have collected. So please moderate how much you do collect before you add it to your family tree.
- Search and record – My best advice is to find your ancestor through the censuses. Once you have done this then add this information to your family tree. You do not want to find one census, add the information and then find the next census and do the same.
- Assimilate the information before you add it to your tree – The reason for this is that there will be conflicting information from one census to another. Details that may differ between records may include your ancestor’s year of birth or where they were born. So please check these details before you add it to your family tree. Otherwise you may have to correct your entry with each census that you find your ancestor listed in.
There’s a mistake in the census records:
You will undoubtedly find a mistake in the census records when you start looking. But why should there be mistakes in official government documents? Well knowing why there are mistakes will also giving you clues as well.
- Your ancestor lied – It’s quite possible that your ancestor lied about their age or maybe where they were born. There maybe several reasons for this deception so don’t rule it out. One ancestor of mine went by her maiden name for one census and then the following census reverted back to your married name. I have yet to discover the story behind this.
- The enumerator recorded the details incorrectly – Quite simply the enumerator who was collecting the census details on the night may have incorrectly put down the wrong information.
- Discrepancies between censuses and known facts – Sometimes you will find discrepancies between the different censuses. This could be with regard to age or where your ancestor was born. You could try searching for an official record such as a birth certificate to ascertain the correct facts.
- A degree of precision – Sometimes the recorded birthplace may differ from census to census and not be incorrect. This maybe because the town, village or parish has been recorded. And although they may differ between records they will in fact be correct.
- Birthplace same as where they were living – Again the enumerator may have recorded the birthplace of your ancestor as the same as where they were currently living for a particular census. This maybe due to the enumerator getting carried away with their ditto marks.
Where Can I Find UK Census Records?
By now you know that census records are important for your genealogy research to help build your family tree. You can also refer to the tips in this post to help you when you are searching through these records. But where do you find these census records?
There are a number of options that are available to you but basically they fall into two categories. The FREE options and the PAID options.
Your FREE options!
You can visit the National Archives in Kew where you can look at these records through a microfiche reader. Viewing these records is free although unless you are near to the Archives then you would need to make a day trip of it, possibly though several days to get the most out of your visit.
Two online options that I highly recommend to you are FreeCen and FamilySearch. You may not find the records that you are searching for through this approach, (compared to visiting the Archives), but it is definitely worth trying. I personally have found many records through the FamilySearch website.
Please note: The FreeCen website is run by volunteers where you will find censuses for the years 1841 through to 1891.
Scottish census records can be viewed at the ScotlandsPeople website, while Irish records can be searched for at The National Archives Ireland. I must point out though that only Irish censuses for the years 1901 and 1911 are available. This is due to past censuses being destroyed by riots of the Irish Civil War of 1922.
The PAID options!
My go to paid sites have to be Ancestry and Find My Past. You can see transcriptions for these records but as I have highlighted in this post not all transcriptions will be correct. So it is worth paying the subscription so that you can view the original documents.
Census records was my third step in my genealogy journey after checking through what research my father had previously done and asking relatives for help as well. They really helped me so much with building out the branches of my family tree.
When I first started to use these UK census records I was more interested with names, dates, places, etc. I wanted to find out the key facts and piece together my family tree.
But what I did miss out with this approach were the stories. I learned later on by looking closer at the facts can we see what truly happened to our ancestors.
Discover the path of your ancestors!
For example, through looking at these censuses we can pick up on the fact that our ancestors migrated. But why was this? Only by checking out the history of where our ancestors lived and what they did for a living can we understand their lives better.
And for me in doing so we can feel closer to them. We get to appreciate more what they went through.
Genealogy is about the facts. They are what help us build our family tree. But family history on the other hand looks at the stories. If we want to know more about the difference between genealogy and family history you can check out my What Is Family History? post.
Thank You and Please Leave A Comment
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