UK Census Records

UK Census records are a fickle thing.  For the majority of the time, you are likely to be perfectly happy as you find 70 years of family history in the first 5 minutes.  For many others though, myself included, it’s not always so easy.

The Story of the UK Census officially begins in 7th Century where the first UK census was actually completed across Scotland and parts of Northern Ireland. The territory that conducted this census was called Dál Riata and it was created to build a list of the men of Alba.

The first census of England was completed by William the Conqueror after he conquered England.  Known as the Doomsday book, this was much more than a peoples’ census.  Put simply, it’s aim was to list all the assets that England held so the new king knew the value of his lands.

From this point forward the majority of census’ were conducted by the lords of the areas and were intended for Local Militia (Private Army) purposes.

In 1801, the first regular national census took place. It was brought about by the Census Act 1800 also known as the Population Act 1800. This was an Act of Parliament which allowed the first census to be taken and provisioned for one every 10 years thereafter.

1801, 1811, 1821 & 1831 were all based on the model setup by this act.  All of these were mainly statistical and contained household headcounts with little else information.  The National Archives state that they do not hold individual details of these census’, but that: “In a few cases, nominal lists created by local overseers for the purposes of calculating the headcounts survive locally.” These records might list all persons or just the heads of households.

It wasn’t until the Population Act of 1840 that personal information began to appear in census records.

This act, first seen in the 1841 census, meant household details contained the names of all those living there (relationships not listed), their ages (Children Exact but Adults to within 5 years), the road they lived on, whether born in the same county and if not, whether born in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts.

Something else to note is this census was filled out in pencil and not pen.  This makes it difficult to search due to fading with age*.


As the census’ moved forward they became more and more detailed.  The 1851 was the first to include the relation to head of family, condition as to marriage, correct age & their Profession.

It also included, for the first time, a requirement to mark if someone is Deaf, Dumb or Blind.  (A Very Victorian requirement.)


The  1861 Census introduced a census for every household, regardless of whether it was inhabited or not.  Now, I know not many of you are interested in empty houses but it’s still an interesting addition.



The 1871 Census was a replica of the 1861 census.




The 1881 census followed the same lines as the 1861 & 1871 census, the only change being the far right column contained an update.  It now asked you whether you are :
1)  Deaf & Dumb
2)  Blind
3)  Imbecile or Idiot
4)  Lunatic


The 1891 census did see some changes.  As well as showing whether a house was inhabited, it now had a column requesting to know the number of rooms in the house.

The next change accompanied the ‘occupation’ section.  You were now asked to state if you were an employer, employed or neither.

The final change was to merge the 3 & 4 of the last column listing whether you are a Lunatic, Imbecile & Idiot.

The 1901 census had a few changes to various areas.  For the first time, the number of the house you lived at was requested.  Although some include this in previous census’, this was the first to officially request the information.

There were now 4 columns in the inhabited section.  Inhabited, In Occupation, Not in Occupation & Building.

The occupation section changed as well.  Employment status was now just 1 column but you also asked if you were working from home.

Finally, the far right column changed it’s criteria again.  This time asking if you were:
1) Deaf & Dumb
2) Blind
3) Lunatic
4) Imbecile or Feeble Minded


And finally, the 1911 Census.  This is the first census in England where the original household forms have survived to the present day.  Up until this point the original schedules were transcribed into the Census Enumerators Book (CEB) by the enumerators and, after that, alterations were made to the CEB by the Census Office Clerks.

More information on how the census’ were conducted can be found here.

New information requested this time was the number of years married, The total number of children born along with how many of the children are still alive and how many died.

A new column now requested to know which industry or service the worker was connected.

Another new column is to ask for nationality of every person born in a foreign country.  This asked if a ‘subject’ was British by parentage, naturalisation or, if not British, to write your true nationality.

So, going back to how I started this blog, if you take a look closely enough at the census examples, you may notice that, with the exception of 1841, the records follow one person across 60 years of history.  The person’s name is Michael McCarthy.  He was born on 5th October 1842 in Tallow, Waterford, Ireland.  His parents, Michael McCarthy and Anne Stokes moved to England and settled in Fulham somewhere between 1843 & 1848.  I know this because the next child Patrick, was born in Fulham on 10th March 1849.

The family I describe here is my family.  Michael is my 2nd Great Grandfather and I even share the name (Although not because it was his name).  I chose to use these census records, not just to give examples of the records, but to show how difficult it can be to find records, even with only slight variations.

To help, there are 3 initial points of interest with census records.  Name, Age and Birth Location.  Other columns like Address, County and Occupation are useful but I would use them as further proof rather than initial search criteria as all three are highly changeable for different reasons throughout the census records.

If you are lucky, these 3 initial points of interest remain the same.  If not though, as in the case of Michael, it can be a nightmare to find the right person.  To help with this, I’ve listed Michael’s details below from reach census:

1851:  Michael Carty;  Age 8; Born Ireland
1861:  Michael Macartey;  Age 17;  Born Ireland
1871:  Michael MCarty;  Age 27;  Born Waterford, Ireland
1881:  Michael McCarthy;  Age 37;  Born Cork, Ireland
1891:  Michael McCarthy;  Age 47;  Born Ireland
1901:  Michael McCarthy;  Age 55;  Born Fulham
1911:  Michael McCarthy;  Age 68;  Born Fulham

Now, on the face of it, you may think this looks easy.  However, with 4 name variations, 3 Age variations, and 4 different places of birth in 2 differing countries, I can assure you it was a nightmare.

The easy part was getting back to 1871.  His son, my great-grandfather, also called Michael, was born in 1870.  This helped a great deal and gave me the first clues as to his correct birthplace and age.

The 1861 census was actually the hardest to find.  In the meantime, I got birth and marriage certs to prove we were on the right track.  His marriage gave me his father’s name so I continued hunting, eventually getting lucky and finding a census that matched age and birth place.

This was closely followed by finding the 1851 census record.  Both of these gave me parents and siblings but this wasn’t enough.

I checked on an Irish website that sells transcriptions of records for an extortionate price and managed to find birth records for Michael and Mary (Eldest) . At the same time, I found and ordered the birth record of the eldest British born sibling (Patrick) and this showed the same parents so I had confirmation the family was correct.

And this is where, so far, the journey into the history of my family name has reached.  The next stage will eventually be a trip to Ireland to dig further.  There is little information online in terms of Irish parish records.  In fact, only 1 website in Ireland is anywhere near extensive enough to use.  Unfortunately, they charge extortionate prices and all their records are transcribed which is not good at all.

For those unsure of what a transcribed record is, basically, the example census records above are copies of original records,  The census breakdown of Michael McCarthy I added is essentially a transcribed record.  Transcriptions are only as good as the person that transcribed them.  They can be a good guide but should never be used as evidence to prove family connections unless, as in my instance, you have proof from actual records.

When investigating family history, always remember that nothing is better for evidence than the actual record or a scanned copy thereof.

So I guess that’s all for now.  Please feel free to leave comments.  I look forward to reading them.

Good night all.

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