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Shropshire Archives is open in a phased way from 21 April 2021.

Research tips – census returns

April 15, 202011:02 amFebruary 25, 2021 4:21 pmLeave a Comment

We hope that you have been able to continue with your family history research, even though the good weather has probably tempted you into your garden over the past few weeks.  We are still dealing with enquiries remotely, and it looks like plenty of people are using their time at home to look into both local and family history.

Shropshire Library Service have now enabled home access to the Ancestry and Find My Past websites for Shropshire residents using your library login details as part of their e-library.

This is a fantastic resource and we have already heard from several of our researchers that they are managing to make good use of this while they continue their research from home. There are currently some issues with the numbers of searches allowed per day/month under the access terms for the FindMyPast site but please bear in mind that this is a new system and everyone is trying to find the best fair and workable arrangement.

Using census returns for family history

Moving on from Parish Registers as a source of information, Census returns can be very useful for family research, as they list all inhabitants of the house on census night, together with ages and places of birth. Returns for England and Wales from 1841-1911 are searchable at and

The census is a count of the population and took place in the UK every ten years. The earliest census was 1801, but the first few censuses usually give only statistical information. From 1841 onwards, the census includes names of individuals. Because of the personal information in census returns, they generally remain closed to the public for 100 years.

The 1841 census contains less information than later ones and is harder to read, but from 1851 all census returns contain address, those present that night, their relationship to the head of household, marital status, age, sex, occupation and place of birth. The 1911 census gives even more information.

Remember, the census only records who was present in the house on census night. ‘Missing’ people might be visiting family, or even hiding! One of the most important sections of the census is the place of birth. This allows you to move back to earlier census returns or parish registers. Looking at the children’s places of birth may help you track the movements of a family.

The recording of ages sometimes presents problems. In 1841, the age was often rounded down to the nearest 5 years, or to the nearest 10 years for those over 60. From 1851, the age is usually given as exact (except where it was not known and therefore rounded up or down).  There are many instances of inaccuracies – for example, a place or name may have been misheard. Treat ages and places of birth with caution!

Using census returns for house history

Both Ancestry and FindMyPast are primarily set up for family history but you can use the sites to find the residents of your property with a bit of persistence.

The people collecting the information for the census were known as enumerators. Each was responsible for an enumeration district and the arrangement of the census follows the route that they took. At the start of each new district, there is usually a description of area covered, followed by a summary of the number of houses, occupiers and persons. House numbers are not always noted, but it is sometimes possible to follow the route and work out locations of houses by comparing the route to a local map. For example, if a farm is listed, followed by the house you are interested in, followed by a public house, you may be able to locate the right house.

For Ancestry, follow the link to the census collections page and then lower down the page, select one of the included data collections (eg 1851 England Census). You’ll then get options to search for a particular enumeration district.

On FindMyPast, use the link on the home page to the A-Z of record sets and then search for a particular census eg 1861 England, Wales and Scotland Census. You’ll then get options to search by address or enumeration district.

The sites do often update their searches and arrangement of pages so this is subject to change.

We hope this is useful, and good luck! Who knows who you may find living in a particular household over a hundred years ago!

Written by sarahd

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