Census records are the lifeblood of family history - it's hard to imagine getting started without them. These crucial documents provide a snapshot of your family's domestic life every ten years, listing everybody in the house, and providing details such as their ages, birth places, occupations and relationships.
As the national censuses have developed over time, people have been asked for more information about their lives. So, while the general idea behind the records remains the same, the specific details that you can pick out about your ancestors change through the decades.
This is the first UK census that lists your ancestors by name. It tells you their addresses and whether they were born in the country they were living in. You'll also find approximate ages, rounded down to the nearest five years.View Example
There were several important changes for this census, giving you more crucial details about your forebears' lives. You'll find their correct ages, plus birthplaces, occupations and relationships to the head of the house (such as son, daughter or spouse). You can also discover if an ancestor was blind, deaf or dumb.View Example
The details in this record are very similar to the 1851 Census - although obviously they show a changing population. The only question that was added for each person was their marital status. You can also see whether or not each house was inhabited.View Example
This census builds on the added detail from 1861. The only extra column concerns your forebears' health, as they were asked to note down any serious medical conditions.View Example
The 1881 Census provides the same comprehensive details as 1871. We offer this census as a free index, which means anyone can search for their relatives and see transcriptions of the information for free. To see images of the original records, you'll need to become an Essentials, Premium or Worldwide member, or pay-per-view.View Example
The census became even more detailed in 1891, so there's more to discover about your forebears. Everyone was specifically asked whether they were employed, while those in Wales specified whether they spoke Welsh. You can also see how many rooms were occupied in each house.View Example
This census shows changing working habits, as it includes information on whether your ancestors were working at home. There are also more details about the condition and size of their houses.View Example
The most exciting difference with the 1911 Census is you can see the original household schedules your ancestors filled in - with all previous censuses, you're looking at forms completed by enumerators. This means you can read your relatives' details in their own handwriting, and often see personal comments - one housewife gave her occupation as "slave to the family"!
We have a complete set of census records for Scotland from 1841 to 1901 - the 1911 Census from north of the border won't be released until March 2011 for legal reasons. If you have ancestors in Scotland, you'll discover similar details in the returns for each year to their counterparts around the rest of Britain.
Unfortunately, we're unable to provide images of the original records for Scotland. However, we give you full transcriptions, so you can search for members of your family just as you would in the English returns, and see all the details for each household, including other family members.
Irish census records have been decimated over the years, as they were first pulped by the Government, then burned in the Civil War. We have some great substitutes that you can use like censuses to trace your Irish family, including an index to a large 19th-century survey known as Griffith's Valuation. Find out more
People in Britain have been recorded as far back as the Domesday Book in 1086. However, the first national census as we know it was introduced in 1801, with the aim of telling the Government how many mouths it had to feed in each parish.
Since then, censuses have been taken every ten years – except in 1941, because of World War II. The first three, up to 1831, were just statistical surveys, with no information on the people in each house. Since 1841, though, each census has recorded the names, addresses, ages and many other details of our ancestors, making them essential for family history.