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Census records are the single most important resource for tracing your family tree back to the early 19th century. The details they provide help you to move quickly back through the generations, build a picture of your ancestors’ lives, and solve puzzles in your family’s past. We have a complete set of census records for England and Wales, 1841-1911, plus searchable indexes for Scotland up to 1901.
Censuses have been taken throughout Britain every ten years since 1801, with the aim of telling the Government about changes in the population and its habits. The first few were just statistical summaries. However, since 1841, census records have listed all the people in each home all over the country, together with intimate details of their lives.
These records are kept private for around 100 years. They’re then released to the public as fascinating historical information.
At Ancestry.co.uk, you can see scanned images of all the census records from England, Wales, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, for every decade from 1841 to 1901. You can search for your ancestors by name, date of birth and other key details, and see how they were living more than a century ago. Find out more about searching our records
Although we don’t have access to images of Scottish censuses, we’ve copied down all the information from the available records and made it fully searchable. So, you can also uncover your ancestors north of the border between 1841 and 1901.
The information provided in censuses has increased with every decade – right up to the lengthy forms we fill in today. Even as far back as 1841, though, you’ll be amazed by how much you can uncover about your family.
The records are organised by address. So, the first thing you can see is exactly where your relatives were living. You’ll then find a list of all the names within that household – these are likely to be more of your ancestors, as they’re usually spouses, parents or children of the original person you searched for. The 1851 Census and those that followed actually tell you each person’s relationship to the head of the house.
In 1841, adults’ ages were rounded down to the nearest five years, and people were simply asked whether they were born in that country. From 1851, though, you’ll find each person’s correct age (assuming they were honest!), along with a more precise birthplace. This is crucial information, as it can help you find their entry in the birth indexes, and order a birth certificate.
Right from the first full census, you can also see details of your ancestors’ occupations. These give you a real feel for how they lived their lives – whereas some of you will find several generations of agricultural labourers, others will discover wealthy forebears living “on their own means”, with houses full of footmen and maids.
Extra questions were added gradually. By 1901, you’ll find each person’s marital status, whether they were working from home, details of many medical conditions and even more. Make sure you read the full record for each person – or you may miss crucial information.
It’s usually easiest to trace your family tree backwards through time, and this rule certainly applies to census records. A good starting point is to try to discover – perhaps by speaking to living relatives – the name, approximate date of birth, and possible birthplace of one ancestor who’s likely to appear in the 1911 Census. You can then search for them.
When you find that relative’s census page, look at the other members of the household. This will give you more names for your family tree, and more possibilities to follow up in other records.
Anybody who’s over 10 years old in one census will usually appear in the previous one. Work backwards to track the changes in your forebears’ lives. In particular, look for those you’ve found as adults, recorded decades earlier as children – they’ll probably be living with their parents, giving you another generation to explore.
Remember, your ancestors won’t always be where you expect. If someone’s missing from home, they may be in prison, with the Armed Forces, or living elsewhere with a new family. It’s often these surprises that provide the best stories in our family history, and point you towards other records for further research.