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.
So how do you use the censuses to piece together your family tree? The first step is simple – you search for a single ancestor in one particular year. Once you've found them, you can look at their household, and pick out other members of the family.
You can then move forward or backward ten years, and find the same people at a different stage of their lives. Adults in 1901 may be teenagers in 1891, living with their parents. Once you've added their names to your tree, you can go back further, and pick out their own parents. So it continues, as you progress all the way back to 1841, adding more generations as you go.
It can be frustrating when you can't find a particular person. However, there are many possible solutions. First, it may be that the enumerator wrote their name incorrectly. Try using the spelling variant options in our search boxes. If you still have no luck, look for other family members who you think were living with that relative, then look through the record for possible matches. More
It could be they're not where you expected. Perhaps they moved home, left their family or even ended up in prison. Try looking for other records – such as a marriage certificate or entry in our criminal registers – that could give you further clues. It can also help to look at previous or later censuses, to see if you can pinpoint them there.
It's possible they're not in the census at all. Consider searching our passenger lists to see if they emigrated. If you can find no further record of them, they may even have died – look for a death certificate to confirm this.
Records are created by humans, so they're subject to error. Through the 19th century, many people couldn't read or write, so they didn't know how to spell their own names, addresses or occupations. This meant enumerators had to simply write the information down as they heard it, resulting in numerous spelling errors. More
People often gave incorrect details on purpose – perhaps to keep secrets hidden. Ages are particularly inconsistent. In 1841, these were rounded down to the nearest five years, and even after that people often pretended to be younger than they were.
Finally, mistakes do occasionally occur when we're copying down information in transcriptions. If you find errors like these, you can point them out by adding comments in the record viewer.
If you're searching for a person with a common name, you may get dozens or even hundreds of matches. You can narrow these down at every stage of your search. More
First, provide as much information as you can. It's very helpful if you can specify where your ancestor lived, even if it's just a county. A date of birth is also useful – if you're not certain of this, use the +/- options to choose a range of years. If you can, enter the name of a parent or spouse under 'Family Member', as this will really limit your matches.
When you come to the results, you can quickly discount those that don't look right. Some will be far too old or young, others will have the wrong birth place, while more will be in the wrong part of the country.
Finally, look at the record itself to see the other names in the household. If you've built up a picture of your family tree, you should recognise some of these names – if they all look unfamiliar, you probably have the wrong person.
The great thing about family history is that it never ends. Every piece of information is also a clue that will help you find even more in another record. More
There are some obvious next steps. The censuses tell you your ancestors' ages, which you can use to find a birth certificate. If a relative suddenly appears with a wife and family, they must have married in the previous decade, so look for a marriage record. If they disappear from the records, they may have died – you could track down their death certificate.
The censuses also reveal your relatives' occupations. These are goldmines of information. City and county directories list different types of tradesmen, while we have more specific records of doctors, policemen, clergymen and other professions.
If your ancestors are listed in particular locations, these can point you towards different records. If they're with the Army, look at our huge selection of military records. Less fortunate forebears may be in a workhouse, in which case you should try our Poor Law collections. You may even find some in prison – we have some comprehensive criminal records. There's no end to your options!
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.