If you are new to this hobby and haven't used census records before, you might start by taking lesson #9 on Using Census Records at Rootsweb. This will give you an appreciation for the values and problems of using census returns, indexes and such. And you will learn the difference between a soundex and surname index.
For England, the census started in 1801 and was conducted every ten years except during World War II in 1941. Until 1841, they typically record a surname and a count of males and females in certain age brackets. These early census records are of limited value to family historians. For Nottinghamshire, there are very few pre-1841 census records available at the Salt Lake FHL or through the Family History Centres. In some cases, a "special" census was taken during non-census years. Some are available at the Nottinghamshire Archives. To find out more about pre-1841 census and special census returns, see:
- "Pre-1841 censuses & population listings in the British Isles," by Colin R. Chapman, Lochin Publishing, c1994. A copy is available in the Salt Lake City Family History Library, call no. 942 X27cc 1994.
- "Local Census Listings 1522-1930 Holdings in the British Isles," by Jeremy Gibson and Mervyn Medlycott, Federation of Family History Societies, c1997.
- The 1811 census is available at the Nottinghamshire Archives. The Nottinghamshire Family History Society has an index on CD-ROM. Like most pre-1841 census records, this one only includes the name of the head of the household.
Here's how the census worked in England: Each Registration District is sub-divided into Sub-Districts and the latter into Enumeration Districts containing perhaps 25 to 200 houses. An "Enumerator" was assigned to one or more Enumeration Districts. In the week preceding census night, the appointed enumerator delivered schedules to all households in the area assigned. The instructions were that no person present that night was to be omitted and no person absent were to be included. If individuals were working that night or were traveling, they would be enumerated in the house to which they would normally return after finishing their shift, or where they were to stay at the next stop on their journey.
The census schedule (or enumerator) asked the age of each person on their last birthday. The 1841 census was rounded down to the nearest 5 years for everyone 15 and over, although this instruction was not always followed. A person of 34 was listed as 30, someone 36 was listed as 35. From 1851 on, the age is as reported on the schedule or to the enumerator.
On the Monday after the census night the enumerator returned to collect the completed schedules. If any had not been filled in, the enumerator had to do so by asking the householder for the information. These returns were then copied into printed books of blank forms.
People who were normally away from their places of residences, like fishermen, shift workers etc. were catered for at their place of work. If fishermen were on a boat owned by a company, the company filled in the details of their employees and the boats they were on. The same happened with shift workers. Members of, say, the Navy were treated in a similar way and the census was completed for the ship they were on. Also inmates of hospitals, workhouses, asylums etc. were all listed where they happened to spend the night of the census and enumerators had these places included in their areas and were generally listed on separate census sheets. [John Bartlett]
Every piece of paper for the census has a Piece Number, although the term is usually applied to mean "what is the reference number I need to find village X in year Y?" Thus, if you are looking for the parish of Basford, there should be a piece number for each census year that will take you right to the returns for Basford.
The Piece Number for each annual census starts with an "agency" reference, like H.O. for Home Office, for the agency that stored the documents. For 1861, the Piece Number starts with RG9, meaning Registrar General item #9. The census enumeration pages were preprinted with page numbers, but as there was a need for more than one book to make up each civil parish/sub-district, page numbers are in fact duplicated (same page numbers in one or more books). To get around this problem, 'folio' numbers are stamped on each 'sheet' of paper in the groups of books collected together (in bundles or piece numbers) in the enumeration district. Thus each page can be identified by a code like: RG9/968/16 where RG9 = 1861 year, 968 identifies the Peterborough Registration District and 16 is the folio (two pages) for Crowland parish entries.
The 1841 census is different. As well as a piece number and a folio number, there is a book number. The system works as follows: Given a reference of HO 107/637/9/5, HO 107/637 is the piece number, 9 is the book number and 5 is the folio number.
This whole system was designed so that the reference number could take you directly to a sheet of paper with the information you seek, although it doesn't tell you which side it is on.
Always record the piece number and folio number of any census returns that you note down so that you can easily find it again if necessary.
Censuses of the poor: In the latter part of the 16th century and the opening decades of the 17th, special censuses of the poor were taken. These determined the numbers and conditions of the poor in particular towns, and often included finding out where individuals had come from, reflecting the close link between migration and poverty, as well as who should pay for the poor. To the author's knowledge, none have survived.
Many of these pre-1841 census returns only has the head-of-household named and a count of occupants. The administration of the early census returns 1801-1831 was the responsibility of the Overseers of the Poor and the clergy. Most of these were destroyed, but a few exceptions exist.
The 1841 census was the first to record every household member. The 1841 census doesn't record place of birth, but it does have a "Y" or "N" for "born in County." The 1841 census is over 95% complete, although some sections have faded to where they are difficult to read. There are a number of abbreviations that are unfamiliar: FS = Female Servant, etc. For a list, check out our Census_Abbrev text file.
Excellent quality returns exist for virtually all the UK for 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901.
David WILSON tells us: The 1911 census is also different in this way: There are *NO* census enumerator's books! All that remains are the householder's SCHEDULES. A double sided piece of paper for every household. Written in different handwriting by each head of household. And the condition of each sheet will be different. Many are water-stained and torn. Archivists report that the papers smell.
For general information on what is in each census, see Genuki's Census Guide. For information on current census data, visit the government Statistics site.
A list of when each census was taken (the night of):
In 1915, the Alien Act mandated a Parochial Census, but I have no information on the contents or sources.
The census of 1931 was destroyed by fire, cause unknown. No census was taken in 1941. However, a special census was conducted in 1939.
There was no national surname index or soundex created for any census. In Nottinghamshire, we are fortunate that the Nottinghamshire FHS made a commitment to create county surname indexes for most years. There are surname indexes for most of the county for 1841 through and including 1901. To find a surname index, go to the Nottinghamshire Family History Society page, click on their link and at their site, look under "Publications". It may be easier to buy these via the Federation of Family History Societies Bookstore, which allows purchase by Credit Card.
There are no first names or ages in these indexes. Please note: Any surname indexes which you purchase are probably protected by copyright and cannot be republished by you to a website or shared database.
1881: Only the 1881 census has been indexed for all of the UK by surname. Many Family History Centres have this surname index on microfiche, some on CD. When using the search capabilities of the 1881 census, don't forget to review the "Advanced Query" options (from the toolbar) if you don't find what you are looking for right away.
1901: The 1901 census can be searched, online, for a name at no charge. However, to see the full page or full entry requires purchasing a "voucher". This service is provided by the Public Record Office.
The Street Indexes tell you on which folio numbers each street appears. These are useful if you are searching in a large town.
Street Numbers (or, more properly, House Numbers) and even Street Names were changed from time to time. Stamford (in Lincolnshire) renamed many of its streets, retiring some names, changing others. Local councils were required to provide logical street numbering under the Town Improvement Clauses Act 1847 and the Public Health Act 1875. This enabled premises to be quickly and easily identified by the Post Office, tradesmen, emergency and other services. [John Rouse]
Added to which, towns have often re-numbered the same street, after new buildings have made the old numbering confusing. So when your relative suddenly moves from 10 Aswell Street to 14 Aswell Street, they didn't necessarily have to pack up and go! Which also means, when you in all good faith go and photograph today's number 10 as your ancestral home, they may actually have lived in 14. [Liz Davies]
So, the house you find as #5 Wellington Crescent in one census, could be #9 Waterloo Way in the next. Same building, different address.
A census "Stray", in genealogical circles, is someone who was found, let us say, in Basford during the census, but who was born somewhere else. Normally, we would use it to define Nottinghamshire-born individuals who are recorded out-of-county, but it may also include those enumerated on ships or overseas.
There is an ambitious project underway to put each 19th century UK census online with free access. Although not very far into the project, keep an eye on FreeCen, hosted at Rootsweb. They have started with the 1891 census and are looking for volunteer help.
The Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City can provide microfilm copies of all these census returns from 1841 through 1891. You can also order portions of the 1891 census on fiche from the LDS. You do this through a Family History Centre associated with the Mormon church. You should also check the Nottinghamshire Family History Society as it has some census materials available to members and non-members. You can order microfiche copies of the 1891 census from the Public Record Office, but the approximate cost for all of Nottinghamshire would be over 1,000 Pounds Sterling!
The Nottinghamshire Archives have some census holdings, but the spread is incomplete.
You can get the 1861 census (copies of the actual pages) on CD from Archive CD Books.
You can enter a place name for the 1891 census and the Census Place site names the Registration District.
The 1901 Census for England and Wales was taken on 31 March 1901. The population at the time was over 32 million. The Public Record Office (PRO) has awarded a contract to the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) to digitise the returns and make them available electronically via the Internet from that date. The PRO has a mailing list for people interested in this project.
The Mormon Family History Library in Salt Lake City currently has the 1881 UK census available for online lookup at no charge.
Note: The listing of a resource in this commercial section is not an endorsement of the product.
In the UK:
There is an "all-UK" surname index to the 1881 census. It may be at your local FHS, FHC or public library. It can be ordered on CD. In 1999 it cost £29 54p for the 25 CD set, which includes a national index, and a complete transcription area by area. In the UK, telephone 0121 785 2200 to order. Or send snail mail to: LDS Church Distribution Centre, 399, Garretts Green Lane, Birmingham, B33 0U14.
In the US and Canada, go to the FamilySearch web site and follow the links: > Order Family History Resources > Software Products > Census and Vital Records. The price is US$33 for the complete set or you may order individual CDs by region (e.g. East Anglia) ranging from in price from US$4.25 to US$8.00. They will be shipped by post.
This comment from John Emerson on the 1881 Census CDs: One of the drawbacks of the 1881 census discs, marvelous a tool as they are, is that there are a great many errors of transcription on them. Do bear in mind that the information you have on the discs is actually FOURTH hand! There is a good argument, in fact, for taking the view that even the discs with the actual census data on them - not just the National Index - should be regarded as an index in themselves and the information you find on them still checked against that on the census films. These were the stages of the whole process in producing the discs.....
- The people concerned in 1881 filled in the original forms, or if they were illiterate the enumerator did it for them.
- The enumerator then re-recorded the information into his book.
- The LDS created photocopies of the enumerators' books and these were transcribed during the 1980s and 90s by hundreds of volunteers from British family history societies all over the country. The census was issued first in microfilm version before the CDs.
- The final inputting for the CDs was done by teams of LDS volunteers in Salt Lake City who apparently worked very long hours on shifts and, even though there was a double entry keying program, inevitably errors crept in.
For those who want to know more about the census and other records, get a copy of "Marriage and Census Indexes for Family Historians," by Jeremy Gibson and Elizabeth Hampson, ISBN 1-86006-067-6, from the Society of Genealogists Bookshop for £3.50.
Genealogy Supplies (link is external) has several census supplies and material.
Stepping Stones in the UK has census materials as well.
T W R Computing, also in the UK, is another supplier you can use.