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However far back your relatives can tell you certain information about your ancestors, there comes a point beyond which memories will not stretch. It is now that you will need to start using original records, particularly census records and General Registration records of birth, marriage and death (sometimes referred to as 'BMD' records). Those for England and Wales are available under the 'Search Records' section of Genes Reunited. If your ancestors were not from England and Wales, then you will need the equivalent records for the country where your family lived. Many of those that you will need for Scotland are on a single website, There is no such unified website for Ireland, and indeed the majority of Irish records are not yet on-line. How to undertake research in Ireland is explained in Anthony Adolph's book Tracing Your Irish Family History (Collins, 2007).

Though they are two separate sets of records, and were created for completely different reasons, neither of which had anything to do with genealogy, the censuses and General Registration records of birth, marriage and death (sometimes referred to as 'BMD' records) compliment each other wonderfully. Used together, they can build up a full, solid and certain picture of your family going right back through the 1800s.

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that you need to start using records at the point when your family information becomes uncertain. If you start looking in records for ancestors about whom your starting-information is hazy, you will have great trouble, and may end up finding the wrong person entirely. Instead, start your research on solid ground. If you know your great grandfather married in 1899 and was born about the 1860s, don't start by looking for his birth. Start instead by seeking his 1899 marriage record, which will give a certain age for him, and also seek him and his wife in the 1901 census: you will know it is him, because he should be listed with his wife, and the census will tell you his age and place of birth, which will make seeking his birth record infinitely easier. Only then should you start looking for the birth record.


Census returns record where everybody in the land was on census night, detailing their names; ages, occupations, places of birth and relationships to one another. They are effectively snap-shots taken of our ancestors in the past and, especially because they record ages and places of birth, they are a formidable genealogical tool.

Censuses have been taken every ten years (except 1941, because of the War) since 1801. However, secrecy legislation means that are only available for public searching from 1911 back. The 1911 census can be searched here 1911 Census.

The only later 'census' of sorts available is the 1939 National Identity Register that contains details of names, addresses, marital status, ages and occupations. Its website is, which also explains the restrictions on what can be made available to searchers. With a handful of exceptions, censuses before 1841 were headcounts, without names or ages, and these are of no use to us.

What are censuses?


Censuses exist as paper books, compiled by enumerators who went from door to door to collect the data. They were created, primarily, to study population growth and public health, and it was only in the 20th century that anyone thought of using them to trace family trees. As a result, they were rescued from the attic of Somerset House, where they had been providing comfy nests for the pigeons, and were made available for public searching, first using the original books, then on microfilm, and now on-line.

Before the censuses went online, there existed many indexes, compiled locally by hard-working volunteers. Despite that, finding an ancestor in one census could take anything between 10 minutes and several days – and many were never found at all. The great benefit of online indexing is the speed with which most ancestors can be found – regardless of where they happened to be on census night.

How do I search censuses?


Assuming you know the name of an ancestor who was alive in 1901, you can seek them in the 1901 census. Hopefully, they will appear in a household with their siblings and parents. Armed with the parents' names, you can then seek them in the 1891 census, and work back through the decades until you find them living with their own parents. If all goes smoothly, you can work back to the 1841 census, where you will find your earlier ancestors stating their ages and places of birth in the early 1800s. If you are very lucky, you will find them living with parents or even grandparents who were born in the mid-late 18th century. You can then expand and verify your family tree back to 1837 using General Registration records of birth, marriage and death and then seek the origins of the earliest ancestors in parish registers. If the search back to 1841 does not go smoothly, don't worry, because the General Registration records will probably help you solve any problems that have arisen.

On the 'Search Records' page of Genes Reunited, you can fill in the name of your ancestor, and decide if you want to search in a specific census, or in all of them at once. If your ancestor had a rare combination of names, you may find them in all the censuses with no problem. If not, then you can hone your search by entering a rough year of birth, and, if you think you know where they lived, or where they were born, you can enter a 'place keyword' too. If nothing matches your criteria, the system will give you a list of close-matches. If this fails to produce the desired result, try broadening the age range, or altering or leaving out the 'place keyword'.

What if I cannot find my ancestor under the right spelling?

The greatest problem you are likely to face when using census returns is your ancestor not appearing under the exact name or age you expected. The original returns contain inaccuracies, particularly ages given incorrectly, and names spelled as the enumerator heard them. Do bear in mind that, especially before 1876, when it became compulsory for children under 13 to attend school, most people were illiterate, so had no notion of spelling. By the same token, and despite the most careful checking, the transcribers of these on-line indexes have made a few errors of their own, when transcribing old handwriting. Therefore, seek your ancestor under any variant spelling you can imagine, such as Mumey instead of Murray (a real example from the 1861 census), Homes instead of Holmes and so on. Mumble the surname and see what people think you are saying. A good example is 'Coldbreath' which, if mumbled to someone, can be mistaken for 'Galbreith', which is exactly what it was, originally. Scribble the surname and its variants down in a variety of ways and see what other people think your scribbles say. 'Cassidy' scribbled badly can be read as 'Gamily', and that is therefore how Cassidys might appear in the on-line indexes.

Of course, if you find someone under a radically different surname, you mustn't just accept it is your ancestor – you should seek further co-ordinates, from other census returns, and General Registration records, to try to prove it.

What if I still cannot find my ancestors in the censuses?

The birthplaces stated in censuses were where people thought they originated, and they can be wrong, or generalized. Someone born in a village outside a town might say they were born in the town. If the family moved while the person was a baby, the person may incorrectly say they were born in the place where they grew up. Immigrants, especially Irish ones, fearing repatriation, often said they were born 'here!' Also, it was usual for just one member of the household to provide all the answers about who was living there. In 1891, the husband may have given the answers, and got his wife's place of birth wrong. But in 1901, the wife may have given the answers, and given her birth place correctly, but made a mistake over her husband's. Sometimes, it was the lodger, or a servant who gave the information, and thus the ages and birth places for a whole family might be given very incorrectly indeed!

Therefore, if you search for an ancestor and don't find someone saying they were born where you think they should have been born, be prepared to find them listed with a different birth-place.

Ages are subject to the same range of errors. Most people over 40 have to think twice before stating their age correctly. Couples might alter their ages to reduce an embarrassing age gap, or boys might claim to be older than they really were in order to be able, say, to join the army. There are all sorts of reasons why ages might be given inaccurately.

Always bear in mind that you are not looking at a set of records made for family historians of the future. They were made on Sunday nights, whatever the weather, by tired enumerators going from door to door and asking intrusive questions of irritated squires, drunken workers and scared immigrants. They are fantastically detailed records, but you can't always expect text-book accuracy!

Where were my ancestors?

Showing these results on a map You cannot possibly be an expert in the local geography of the whole of England and Wales, so a special feature of Genes Reunited's search facility links the census results to an on-line map. By clicking on the place of residence in the search-results, you can see where it was on the map. If you are confronted by a long list of results, you can use the 'show these results on a map' link just above the list to see where they all were in relation to each other, a facility that often helps enormously in working out which entries are likely to be right.

What if I am still stuck?

If you really can't find the ancestor you want in the on-line censuses, you can always turn back the clock and search for them using more traditional means. Copies of the microfilmed indexes are still available – there is a set at The National Archives in Kew, Surrey; local archives and record offices often have copies of the local returns, sometimes with old, paper indexes, and any microfilm you want can be ordered to and inspected at your local Mormon Family History Centre (contact details are on Using the microfilmed returns, you can navigate your way through the returns using the start of the enumerators' books, (which you will encounter as you scroll through the returns) in which they describe the routes they took around the houses.

How can I get the best out of the census returns?

Houses are separated by single dashes, and individual households within the same buildings by double ones. Remember that all relationships were given in relation to the head of the household. '-In-law' and 'step-' were often used interchangeably, so don't assume that one of these terms, as used then, means exactly what you would expect it to mean now.

Adopted, foster or step-children could simply be recorded as 'son' or 'daughter', and the surname stated may not have been that which they used later in life. For example, John Smith's mother was widowed and married Henry Bloggs. John may appear in a census as 'son' of Henry Bloggs, and perhaps may even be called 'John Bloggs' – especially if the census enumerator was using dittos rather than writing out the surname each time. However, John himself may never have considered himself to have been a Bloggs, and is most likely to have married under his own surname, Smith, probably not even realizing that he had appeared in a census return as Bloggs.

In the 'marital condition' column, 'M' meant 'married'; 'S' meant single and 'W' was for a widow or widower. The 1891 and 1901 returns state if the person was an employer or not, and if they were, how many people worked for them. The last column records physical and mental handicaps, so always look there – it is surprising how often people take no notice of this last, interesting detail. However, look at this column in the context of the whole page, as there are instances where an obviously rather cross enumerator has ticked the 'imbecile' column for everyone in an entire street!

Interpreting census ages

Censuses were taken on the following dates, that correspond to the following National Archives reference numbers:

6 June 1841 HO 107
30 March 1851 HO 107
7 April 1861 RG 9
2 April 1871 RG 10
3 April 1881 RG 11
5 April 1891 RG 12
31 March 1901 RG 13
2 April 1911 RG 14

You need to take this into account when working out a birth year from a census age, because a 34-year old in the 1861 census was not necessarily born in 1827. A more accurate idea may be obtained by using this formula:

My ancestors' age was given as 34 in the 1861 census

1861 – 34 = 1827.

Therefore, they were born between (check date of census) 7 April 1827 and 8 April 1826.

The 1841 census

The 1841 census differs from the later ones by being much less detailed. Ages, except for children, were generally rounded down to the nearest five years, so, for example, someone aged anything from 30 to 34 would be recorded as 30. When you find an ancestor listed as 30 in the 1861 census, for example, you should record that they were born between (roughly) 1831 and 1826.

Relationships were not stated in the 1841 census, so don't assume that a 30 year old and a 3 year old living together were parent and child – they might be uncle and nephew. Precise addresses were seldom given, so the households just appear as a list under the overall heading of the village or town. Places of birth are just given as 'yes' or 'no' to the question 'were you born in this county?'. For all this, 1841 census returns are quite useful, especially for ancestors who did not survive until 1851.