1. Why use this guide?
This guide tells you how to access the historical censuses from 1841 to 1911 and provides information for researchers using the census returns of:
- the Channel Islands
- the Isle of Man
All later censuses remain in the custody of the Office for National Statistics. They will remain closed to the public for 100 years after the date they were conducted.
Read section 8 if you are looking for the census returns for Scotland and Ireland.
2. Essential information
A census has been taken every ten years since 1801 with the exception of 1941.
There are missing pages in all censuses but 1861 has suffered most. You can confirm missing parishes or districts (for 1861) using the advanced search option in Discovery, our catalogue. Enter the keyword 'missing' within RG 9. You can also identify pages which are known to be missing within some enumeration districts by using the exact phrase 'missing pages' within RG 9. For more guidance on how to search our catalogue, read catalogue search help.
The 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual.
From 1841 to 1901 a census schedule was completed for each household, and was then collected by the enumerator who copied the information into an enumeration book. It is these enumeration books that we consult today online and on microfilm.
Special enumeration books were completed for institutions such as workhouses, barracks and hospitals. There were special schedules for vessels from 1851 onwards.
In 1911 all the household schedules were kept (RG 14), and were not copied into enumeration books. There are instead enumerators' summary books which list every address, including unoccupied buildings, and only contain the names of the head of each household (RG 78). The 1911 was also the first census where the army overseas was enumerated; previously there was only a headcount.
For more contextual information about these records, read the catalogue descriptions in:
3. How do I access the censuses?
Search and view the census records (1841-1911) online (£There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free.). These websites are subscription-based websites. However you can view them free of charge onsite at The National Archives, Kew.
You can search the online census returns by name, browse by place, or locate an exact page if you have the full census reference.
Many libraries and record offices have subscriptions to one or both of the above sites.
Most local and county record offices also hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own area, excluding 1911. Use Find an archive to find contact details for local and county record offices.
4. Other sources
Records of the 1939 Register Service
Request data from the 1939 Register Service £There may be a charge for accessing this information. Searching indexes may be free. (England and Wales), as recorded on the 29 September 1939. This register contains personal information including:
- date of birth
- name and address
- marital status
5. Useful online sources
Search name indexes for 1841-1911 censuses of England and Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man on FamilySearch and partial census transcripts for England, Wales and Scotland on FreeCEN.
Read about the fire that destroyed the 1931 Census for England and Wales, Channel Islands and Isle of Man and consult the street indexes at Historical Streets Project. These are both on the Your Archives pages now held in the UK Government Web Archive.
Browse Vision of Britain for reports based on information from censuses up to 1971, or search for census data relating to a town or district
Consult The Online Historical Population Reports for online access to the complete population reports for Britain and Ireland from 1801 to 1937 and extensive background information including examples of documents.
6. What information can I find in the census returns?
The following details for each individual are included in the 1851-1901 censuses:
- first name, middle names (often just initials) and surname
- relationship to the head of the household (usually the oldest male)
- marital status
- age (at last birthday)
- occupation (their source of income)
- county and parish of birth (if born in England or Wales)
- country of birth (if born outside England and Wales)
- whether they suffered from certain medical disabilities
- language spoken (in Wales, from 1891; on the Isle of Man, from 1901)
- the full address and, progressively with each census, more information about the dwelling itself
The following information is in the 1841 census:
- first name and surname
- age (rounded down to the nearest five for those aged 15 or over)
- whether they were born in the county in which they were enumerated (Y or N)
- whether they were born in Scotland (S), Ireland (I) or Foreign Parts (F)
House numbers were rarely given in earlier census years, and in rural areas you will often find only the name of the village or hamlet.
As well as information provided in the previous censuses, 1911 includes:
- a married woman's 'fertility in marriage' - length of present marriage and number of children born of that marriage, living or deceased
- detailed occupational data
- extra detail on nationality
- exact birthplaces for people born in Scotland or Ireland
7. When were the censuses taken?
The dates of the censuses were as follows:
|1841||6 June||1881||3 April|
|1851||30 March||1891||5 April|
|1861||7 April||1901||31 March|
|1871||2 April||1911||2 April|
In the censuses in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 lists of names were not collected centrally, although some are held in local record offices. Read Local Census Listings or Pre-1841 censuses and population listings in the British Isles for more information.
8. What about census returns for Scotland and Ireland?
Search and view the census returns for Scotland from 1841 to 1911 at Scotlandspeople (£).
Census returns for Scotland are almost identical in format to those for England and Wales, except for 1911, when similarly detailed information was gathered, but was then copied into enumeration books as in previous years.
Ireland (1901 and 1911 only)
View digitised and indexed images of the 1901 and 1911 census records for Ireland (including Northern Ireland) on the National Archives of Ireland website.
Unfortunately, few 19th century Irish census returns have survived.
Use the CensusFinder for locating Irish census substitutes and surviving fragments of the 19th century censuses.
9. Why can't I find my ancestor?
There can be many reasons why you can't find somebody on a census return. Read our blog post 'Missing from the census?' to find reasons why information can be missed or altered as well as learning ways to search that might be more succesful.
10. Further reading
Use our library catalogue to find a recommended book list. The books are all available in The National Archives' reference library. You may also be able to find them in a local library. You can buy from a wide range of history titles in our bookshop.
Search our blogs for posts relating to the census.