As the next census takes place on Sunday 21 March 2021, we are bringing together research tips and information about historic census returns. The census returns are a fantastic resource. You can learn more about individuals as part of your family history, check former inhabitants of your house or build up a picture of the local area by looking at ages and occupations and how they changed over time.
The first full census – or count – of households in England and Wales was taken in 1801. This was partly to look at whether the population was rising and also to gauge manpower resources for the Napoleonic wars. The early census returns, taken every 10 years between 1801 and 1831, were essentially headcounts although sometimes more detail has survived. For more information on these early census returns in Shropshire and tips on how to view online images, visit our blog posts:
From 1841 the census was taken every 10 years and returns contain an ever increasing amount of detail on individuals. This formed part of a whole raft of measures to count and classify the population, including the civil registration of births, deaths and marriages and Poor Law Amendment Act. From the census you can find out ages, marital status, occupations and (crucially for family history) places of birth.
There are a few things to be aware of, for example the 1841 census rounds down ages for adults to the nearest 5. So someone aged 24 could be shown as 20 – and sometimes those over 60 were rounded down to the nearest 10. In later years the census returns became more accurate although people were sometimes hazy about their exact birth place or own age. Remember also that the census is a record of people on census night. You might find an someone away from home visiting relatives or working elsewhere. The National Archives has a good guide to the census returns and the dates of each census night.
Due to the personal data, full census returns are not accessible for 100 years. This is reassuring when you come to think about filling in your own details this year. The 1921 census returns will be released next year.
For more information on census returns 1841-1911 visit our pages:
- census returns – a summary of how to find census returns (full returns and more recent statistical information)
- printable short guides – our guide to key dates and information
- research tips – for accessing census returns from home for family and house history.
During census month
During March 2021 we will be adding highlighting different aspects of the census from the ‘surplus woman’ question to finding individuals in unusual places. Blog posts will be brought together here:
Other online census resources
A number of local and national organisations and individuals are demonstrating how the census can be used. The Flaxmill Maltings has begun an excellent series of Facebook posts and tweets showing how they’ve extracted data from the census to build up a picture of workers at the mill.
Professor David Olusoga’s YouTube live lesson looks at how the equality, representation and the census.
If you’ve come across other resources, or would like to let us know how you’ve used the census in your own research, do let us know in the comments.