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UK Census Facts

                              by Gordon Johnson of


Census enumeration did not start on an official government basis until the year 1801, the year of the first census of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Prior to that, there are many instances of local censuses of various kinds – lists of local inhabitants, church communion rolls and catechism lists, taxation lists, and so on. Many listings did not include children, and some were head of households only, so the comprehensive coverage of the UK censuses is a great boon. These local listings go far back in time, the earliest being in Selkirk in 1513, found in the burgh court book; There is a list of the inhabitants of Stirling around 1552, but most date to the 1600s and 1700s

One point to note carefully is that, unlike the American example, the UK census was to be carried out nation-wide based on where everyone was staying on a particular night, so that the exact date can be one of two - either the day ending at midnight, or the day starting at midnight. You will find both quoted by different authorities. The form was to be filled up by, in theory, the head of the household; but often it was filled in by one of the few literate persons around, and that might be a schoolchild!

Names or numbers?

The next thing to remember is that the function of the census was to provide statistical information to assist government policies, and as a result the first few UK censuses DO NOT contain names of individuals, merely numbers. This applied to the years 1801,1811,1821, and 1831, so that 1841 was the first year for which we have names of individuals country-wide. There exist quite a number of census drafts compiled by the local enumerators, including names, prior to submitting the official returns without names. These have survived in local authority archives, churches, and collections of estate and family papers, and along with pre-1801 listings, are detailed in “Local Census Listings, 1522-1930: holdings in the British Isles”, published by the Federation of Family History Societies, in England. Check to discover the latest edition, for it gets updated as more discoveries are made.

1841 being the first year with names, you expect it to be useful, but it had major defects for the family historian: No relationships are given; ages are all ROUNDED DOWN to the nearest 5 years; and for place of birth the question was “Were you born in this county or not?”, the answer of course being Y for yes or N for no, neither of which tells you exactly where they were born!

1851 is the first year in which the data is pretty dependable, with individuals shown by their relationship to the head of the household, exact ages stated (as far as was known), and birthplace asked for by county and parish for all those born in the census country (Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland); anyone born in one of the other countries was to be shown simply by the name of the country without any detail. The same applied to foreigners: country of birth only. As the years progressed, 1861-1901, additional questions were added, mainly about the accommodation or mental/physical disabilities.

What's available?

The 1881 census was transcribed by the Mormons and published on cd-rom; and then it was made available online from the official government genealogical websites in England and Scotland. Gradually the other censuses are being turned into online access, either purely as a free index (you then order paid copies of the returns in Scotland), or directly online (as in England where the copyright rules are approached differently).

For Americans used to government material being freely available, please note that in the UK there is a government copyright in all material originated from government records, unless the material has been officially placed in a public archive for free availability. The English census records were thus moved, but the Scottish census records remained in government hands and so they can demand payment for providing copies.

1891 and 1901 census returns are online in England and the indexes in Scotland, and both countries are embarked on programmes to make the earlier returns available as soon as possible.


What's missing from the UK census returns? For a start, some vagrants and gypsies were hard to pin down during census recording, and in 1841 some fishermen were at sea on census night and missed off, but from 1851 measures were put in place to get them enumerated on return to port, and these improved over the years. Royal Navy ships were also fairly well recorded, and eventually merchant naval vessels were issued with forms to fill in while at sea, and handed over to an enumerator on return to a UK port.

Not all census books have survived. In Scotland in 1841 a small ferryboat sank, and returns for a number of Fife parishes were lost. Due to various problems there are a small number of enumeration books missing from various years, but very few in total. Local public libraries and archives can advise you of any deficiencies in the locations for your own families.

Visiting Scotland, or using FHCs?

For those who prefer to read the census returns directly, all up to 1901 have been microfilmed and can be viewed either by ordering in to your nearest Mormon Family History Centre, or if visiting Scotland, many local libraries and archives have microfilm sets for their area, often for a whole county, and they can be viewed for free, and printouts obtained for a small charge. The advantage of visiting a local library or archive is that other source materials can be viewed at the same place or nearby, such as Old Parochial Registers (OPRs), valuation rolls, school registers, applications for poor relief, and local newspapers either in paper form or microfilm.

Problems to watch out for.

There are a view pitfalls to beware, especially in Scotland. One was that women in Scotland tended to stick as far as possible to their maiden surnames, so that a widow may be found listed as head of household under her maiden surname, followed by the children under her married surname. There is no hard and fast rule about this, but be prepared to meet it occasionally.

Secondly, in locating your parish of interest, it may change from one county to another between censuses! This occurs through boundary changes as part of local government reorganization, and in the future it will get worse, for we have had several reorganizations in the 20th century sometimes with new names for old counties. Forfarshire in Scotland last century changed to Angus, the historical name for this East Coast area.

Ireland offers difficulties

Ireland has peculiar problem when it comes to census records. During World War One, a government drive to alleviate a paper shortage led to some Irish census returns being pulped! Then in 1922 during the rebellion in Dublin, a fire was started where the remaining census returns were stored, and many more were destroyed. 1901 and 1911 are fairly complete, and have been made available early due the lack of earlier returns. There exist returns for a few counties only for 1821,1831,1841 and 1851. You get over the lack of census returns by using “Griffith's Valuation”, a survey carried out between 1847 and 1865 which names heads of owners and occupiers of land. There are also “Tithe Applotment Books” (1823 to 1837), which list occupiers of agricultural land in

Going further back, there was a religious census in 1766, where heads of households were listed as Catholic or Protestant. The original was destroyed in the 1922 fire, but a number of copies remained intact. There is also the Flax Seed Lists, dated 1796, stating heads of households who agreed to plant flax, for which they received a premium of one spinning wheel per quarter acre. It lasted for one year only. It is popularly known as the Spinning Wheel Census.

Wales Census

Wales, through the historical annexation to England centuries before, had many of its government functions linked to England. So it is with the census. Welsh census returns went to the PRO in England, but microfilm copies are available at many sites within Wales. Check with the local archives or public library for availability.

This article provided by Gordon Johnson of


1901 Census News Flash! has opened the 1901 UK Census Index free to all users for a limited time period.  Please note, you may search the index freely but in order to view the images, you must be a member or sign up for the 14 Day FREE trial.


1841 Census News Flash!

1841 Census of England and Wales

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1861 Census News Flash!

The complete 1861 Census for England & Wales is now online!


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