The UK Census: An Introduction

The UK census documents are one of the primary sources of information for Canadians and Americans searching their family history, as many of the original settlers of those countries came from the British Isles.

History of the UK Census

The first census known to have been taken in any of the countries in the UK occurred in the 7th century, in Scotland.

A few centuries later, William the Conqueror began the first survey of Norman England not long after his conquest in 1066 A.D. This census  took a number of years to complete,

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Uk flag and map

UK census taking in more modern times began in 1801, and has taken place every 10 years since then. From 1801 until the 1841 UK census, however, only a head count was taken, as the main purpose was to make sure the country was producing enough food to feed all of the population. Those early documents therefore contain very little information of use to a family historian.

From 1841 and on, however, they began recording the names of everyone in a particular household on a particular night, as well as such information as age, town or village of residence, and whether the person was born in that county.

The questions asked have become somewhat more detailed over time. They also have changed with virtually every UK census, depending on what was of particular importance to the government of the day, although certain core questions have remained on each one.

There are variations between and among the various countries which are now, or once were, a part of the United Kingdom with respect to how the census has been handled. The following provides a brief summary of notable differences in the various countries.

England and Wales

England and Wales currently have a 100-year limitation on the release of census data to the public. That is, the UK census taken in the 1900 decade could not be released until the year 2000. That taken in 1920 cannot be released until 2020, and so on.

The notion is that the information contained in the census documents can be of a sensitive and private nature, and those included in the census should have their privacy protected.

Once 100 years is up, virtually all people mentioned in a particular census will have passed on, and their privacy will no longer be an issue. The UK censuses which are currently available (as of August 2012) are those taken every 10 years beginning in 1841 and ending in 1911.

This 100-year prohibition was successfully challenged by genealogist Guy Etchels in 2006 with respect to the 1911 England and Wales census, which was held by the National Archives. As a result, the 1911 England and Wales census was released before the 100-year deadline, except for some sensitive details, which were held back until the 2011 100-year anniversary.

That success was followed by a petition to the English government to reduce the period during which these documents were considered classified from 100 years to 70 years.

However, the government responded that the grounds for the early release of the 1911 census would not apply to the 1921 and later UK censuses, since they were held by the Office of National Statistics (rather than the National Archives), the governing statute for which contained a clause prohibiting release within 100 years.

Private - No Access
Source: Jim Champion, via Wikimedia Commons
No Access

Individual requests for information could be considered under the Freedom of Information Act. The government also expressed concern that the individuals who had supplied the information had an expectation that the data would be kept private. The release of this information during their lifetimes could result in embarrassment, and a reluctance on the part of current census participants to provide similarly sensitive information.

The 1931 England and Wales census was destroyed in a fire, and there was no 1941 UK census because of World War II. That would mean, therefore, that after the release of the 1921 UK census in 2021, there would be no further census data available until 2051.

Given that situation, Mr. Etchels has now argued for the early release of the 1939 National Registration of the UK, an emergency, pre-War registration which recorded many census-like details about people and households in the UK.

The Commissioner has ruled partially in Mr. Etchels’ favour, in finding that the NHS should grant access to records where the information relates to people who are deceased.

Mr. Etchels has not decided whether he will appeal the ruling. From his perspective, there is nothing in the legislation which prohibits the release of the documents, and they have been archived so that people can have access to them. Further, much of the same data is available to the public in other formats, such as directories and telephone books, and it therefore does not make sense to hide the census data away.


In Scotland, the census was taken every ten years, at the same time as the England and Wales census. Each census was taken under the auspices of the Registrar General for Scotland from 1861 to the present.

Scotland has always had a 100-year rule with respect to release of its census documents

The 1901 census was released on the 100th anniversary of its taking. The Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 exempts personal census records from being made available to the public until 100 years after the census was taken. Thus, the 1911 census of Scotland was released on April 5, 2011, 100 years and a few days after the census date of March 27, 1911.

Also, as a result of Guy Etchel's success in obtaining records from the 1939 National Registration (England and Wales) upon presentation of proof that the individual whose record you are seeking is deceased, Scotland provided similar access to its 1939 National Registration records.

Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland

Up until the 1920s, the entire island now comprised of the two countries of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was one nation, known as Ireland. Both were under British rule.

Although a census was taken every 10 years beginning in 1841, very few Irish census documents have survived, for various reasons. There are none prior to the 1901 census. Those before 1861 were burned in a fire during the Civil War.

The 1901 Irish census and the 1911 Irish census both have been available to the general public since 1960, as following partition of the island, the records were no longer subject to British laws and the 100-year rule. Both are now online, and searchable, at the Irish National Archives.

No census was taken in 1921, due to the War of Independence. However, both Northern Ireland and the Republic took a census on April 18, 1926. The returns for the 1926 Northern Ireland census have been lost, but those for the Republic are still in existence.

Northern Ireland did not take a census in 1931. However, it has followed suit with Scotland, England and Wales, in providing access to the 1939 National Registration records. A Freedom of Information request must be submitted, along with proof of the demise of the person about whom you are seeking information.

General Observations about the UK Censuses

When looking at the UK census documents from decade to decade, you may find that a person’s age appears to be mis-stated by a year or so. In many cases, this is due to the date on which the census was taken.

That is, if your birthday fell between April 1 and June 5 – let’s say May 5 - and you were born in 1831, in the 1841 census (taken as of June 6), your age at your last birthday would be 10. In 1851, however, it would be 19, since your 20th birthday would not arrive until after the census date of March 30. It therefore can be helpful to know the effective date of a census.

Having made that comment, I note two things: first, that many enumerators routinely rounded a person's age down to the nearest multiple of 5 in the 1841 UK census; and second, that the UK census takers in the mid-1900s were concerned over what they saw as evidence in the census schedules that women were not providing their proper age to the enumerators.

"How old do you think I am?
Source: Wikimedia Commons - Allen Warren, 1986
Sophia Loren

The data seemed to suggest that, if a woman married young, she inflated her age on the census, and if she married at an older age, she decreased her age.

When the 1951 UK census was being prepared, the Registrar General went so far as to ask women - presumably via newspaper or radio – to be more truthful about their age on the census.

It is easy to imagine that, as it would today, the press had a field day with such a pronouncement! In one British document I read, a cartoon from that era was reproduced which showed a husband filling out the census form, and saying to his wife,

“What do you intend to be this time, Maria? Last time you were thirty-one, and thirty the time before!”

To which she glibly replied,“Tell the truth, dear – thirty-two! Heigh-ho! How time flies!”

All of the UK census documents currently available were produced on the premise that everyone was recorded in the household where they spent the night on the date of the census, regardless of where they actually lived.

This is different from the US and Canada, which specified that householders were to list everyone who normally resided in that household on the night of the census, regardless of where they actually spent it.

A Few Reasons the Census is so Useful to Family Historians

Some of the main reasons that census documents are so useful to family historians are as follows:

1. They can prove how individuals are related, since they show children within their family units.

However, one cannot assume that those listed in a particular census document are the only children in the family. Some may be away from home apprenticing at a trade, working, in school, or married and raising their own families.

Family Groupings Identify Siblings and Relationships
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Row of houses

Others may have died at a young age, and never were listed in any of the census documents. Still others may not have been born at the time of the census document you are looking at.

It therefore is not enough to look only at one census document. Rather, it is a good idea to look at the family group in as many census documents as you can find.

When you cannot find a particular family member in the subsequent census documents, that is a clue to look for a marriage, a death, or migration, whether inter-country or inter-county.

2. It gives you a picture of the family within the broader setting of their society.

Their neighbours are listed on the census documents. Often a review of the neighbours will indicate the presence of other family members nearby. It may also lead to some surprises!

I recall reading one woman’s account of how she had been looking for her great-grandmother and her family in the 1851 UK census.

Neighbours at Close Quarters!
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Row of houses

She was unable to locate either of her great-grandparents in that document. For 10 years, she would periodically go back to that document and search it, in vain.

Then, there was an announcement that a number of pages from the 1851 UK census had been missing from the database, because they were damaged and very difficult to read. With advancements in technology, the database owners now were able to salvage the pages so that they could be read, and had transcribed and indexed the missing pages.

The woman, intrigued, thought she would try her search again. Among the missing pages, she found her great-grandmother’s family.

But that was not all; living just down the street was her great-grandfather with his parents! She therefore had solved the mystery of where both of them were in the 1851 census, and as added bonuses, had discovered how they met, and confirmed who their parents and siblings were!

3. The census documents can give you clues to birth dates (if they don’t actually provide the date of birth, as some of the US and Canadian census documents do), as well as death dates.

Recently, I was looking for the true birth date, or at least the birth year, of a woman in my husband’s family tree. In the 1861 UK census documents, she stated that she was age 29; in the 1871 census, she was 34; in the 1881 census, age 41; and in 1891, 51. I wish I knew her secret for aging only 5 years between 1861 and 1871, and 7 years between 1871 and 1881!

Seriously, I wondered which age was correct. I suspected that, if I could find her in earlier census documents, I would find her actual year of birth, within a year or so. I assumed that her mother would not have the same motivation to “be creative” with her daughter’s age as the daughter had in later years!

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Birthday cake

To make a long story short, I found christening records in the late 1830s for three of her younger siblings, which gave the same address for her parents as those shown in the 1851 to 1881 census documents. After much searching, the 1841 census finally yielded up its secrets, and I found the entire family, including the child I was looking for.

I have yet to locate the birth or christening records for the three older children, including her, but I now know that she was born in 1830 or 1831, as she was listed as age 11 in the 1841 census.

So much for clues to birth dates; what about clues to death dates? If you look at a particular family over a number of census documents, at some point, you likely will see one of the parents listed as “widowed”, and the other not listed. Or, you may find one parent and the children, but with a different spouse.

That is a great clue that the missing spouse likely passed away at some point between that census and the last one on which s/he was listed (although on some occasions, I have found that it meant that the couple had broken up, and one was living with someone else). It gives you a narrower window of time, and a general location, in which to search for his/her death, or to determine an alternate reason for the spouse's absence.

4. The year of marriage can be inferred from the year of birth of the eldest child in a family grouping.

The year of marriage can be inferred, or at least your search window of time can be narrowed, by looking at the age of the oldest child.

Another way of approaching this is to look at various census documents over time, to see a child progress to a teenager apprenticing or working, and then to establishing his/her own household with a spouse. Again, this helps to narrow down the time period in which to look for a marriage, and also gives a likely location for the marriage.

5. Military service, religious affiliation, etc.

Some of the census documents, especially around the time of a war in the country, ask about men in the household who have done military service. Others ask about religious affiliation.

The answers to both of those questions will point you in the direction of additional sources of information about your ancestors, which may yield a tremendous amount of information about where they had been and what they had done in their lives.

Alkborough Church, England
Source: David Wright via Wikimedia Commons
Alkborough Church

Final Comments

One additional point I should make: be sure to check the actual census document, if it is available, as not everything on the document is transcribed.

Further, sometimes the parts that have been transcribed contain errors in transcription, usually due to difficulties reading the writing on the document itself. Without checking the actual document, you could miss some very important details of your ancestor’s life - details which might point toward the location of something that you have been searching for.

As noted above, we as family historians use the census documents extensively, as they contain so much relevant data with respect to various aspects of our ancestors’ lives, which help to narrow the field of search, in terms of location and time period.

They are a great starting place for information about our families! They are a real boon to us as we search for our ancestors, as long as we keep in mind that their accuracy is not guaranteed!

Go from "UK Census: An Introduction" to "familyhistoryalive Home Page

1841 Census

1851 Census

1861 Census

1871 Census

1881 Census

1891 Census

1901 Census

1911 Census

1901 Irish Census

1911 Irish Census

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