September 3rd, 2012

British and Irish Census Records – Their History and How to Use Them

British and Irish census reports actually have an interesting history behind them. In that history lays valuable information that can help you to locate your ancestor, and develop an intimate understanding of them and the lives they lived. The first census was initiated after a period of poor harvests and food shortages. Subsequently the British Government decided to take a “survey” of the population in order to determine the general health and makeup of the people. It was thus in 1800, under the order of George III, that The Census Act was decreed ordering a complete enumeration of all of Britain, namely; England, Scotland and Wales. According to the Act, the record taking would commence in 1801and a similar enumeration would be performed every ten years from that day on. This has been carried out accordingly except in 1941 due to the ongoing war.

The questions to be asked during the enumeration were designed to separate the country into three specific categories; those involved in agriculture, those employed in the manufacturing and trade industries, and those engaged in all other forms of employment. This first census however, did not require names to be given, though some enumerators included them in footnotes or for their own personal documentation. Questions that were asked of householders were fairly general and geared towards establishing; the amount of inhabited houses within the area, how many families lived in each house, how many males as opposed to females lived in the region, occupational data, and how many baptisms and burials had been recorded in the area during the previous century. Names were not recorded until the year 1841,

From 1841 onwards the questions asked in the census reports became more and more detailed. Besides the names of the inhabitants of a household, their age (although lowered down to the nearest five year increment for anyone over fifteen), and gender were required.  The 1841 report is generally the first used by most researchers, not only because of the vital data they contain, but also because they were tabulated and preserved for reference. In 1851 those living at sea, whether serving in the merchant or Royal navies, were included, along with those serving overseas in land based forces and employed by the East India Company. There were few changes in this format over the next 40 years, except that language spoken in the home was included, until the 1901 census when questions were designed to elicit more precise responses.

The following information on each individual can be found on reports between 1841 and1901:

  • Full Name – First, Middle (usually only an initial or initials were recorded for middle names) and Surname
  • How Related to Head of Household
  • Age at Last Birthday
  • Gender
  • Marital Status
  • Occupation
  • Place of Birth – County and Parish if Wales or England)
  • Country of Birth if Born Outside England and Wales
  • Language Spoken
  • Whether or not Disabled

The reports also contain the full address and, progressively with subsequent census returns, additional information about the abode itself.

An excellent resource on how to utilize the British Census returns for research purposes is supplied by the British Government at their National Archives website. Their Guide to Census Returns provides valuable information for anyone researching ancestors in England and Wales, as well as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

Scotland and Ireland

Separate enumerations were taken of Scotland and Ireland and additional information on each year can be found at the Scotland’s People website operated by the General Registration Office of Scotland and at Ireland’s National Archives. The reports for Scotland can be viewed online at, and there is a census index for the year 1881 that can be accessed via the public computer stations at the National Archives of Scotland. also has digitized indexes from 1841 – 1901.

Unfortunately due to the Irish Civil War, few returns from the 19th century have survived, though the returns for 1901 and 1911 are mostly intact and can be viewed online at the Irish National Archives website.

Useful Tips for Working with English Census Records

The British government included an “as of” date in their census reports. Referred to as the “census night”, the census return was to include the names and details of all individuals who were in the house from Sunday night to Monday morning. Though this may seem a fairly obvious stipulation, we have highlighted it as it is important to consider the “as of” date when consulting census records and comparing them with other genealogical data. An example of this would be; say an individual’s age is listed as 31 in the 1841 census, but only as 40 in the 1851 return. This could be confusing, unless you consult the respective “as of” dates.  In 1841 the census night was Sunday June 6; in 1851 it was Sunday March 30. This is about nine weeks difference, and you could suppose that the person’s birthday fell during that period, and consequently narrow your search for their birth records.

If for any reason the census form was not properly completed by the head of a household, enumerators were instructed to request that data at a follow up visit. Also if an individual was illiterate or blind, or wasn’t able to physically complete the census form, an interview was to be conducted by the enumerator, who completed the document on behalf of the householder. Original descriptions of enumeration districts can therefore be helpful in finding lost ancestors, Enumeration districts are basically geographic areas assigned to individual census takers, and generally represent a specific part of a city, parish or county.  If browsing online at for example, if you click on the census return you wish to search, a drop down list with County names appears. After selecting a County, you choose a Civil Parish, which consequently reveals the enumeration districts for that area.

Notes on Irish Census Returns

Irish census taken has not always been consistent, and for this reason the following information may be useful when consulting Irish Census records. The first Irish census was taken in 1813, and subsequently reports were administered every ten years thereafter from 1821 through 1911. The census was not taken in 1921 due to the Irish Civil War, but one was taken in 1926, and two more in 1936 and 1946. Between the years 1946 and 1971 the census was taken every 5 years, and then in 1971 a ten year span was again implemented.

In addition to the inconsistencies of the census intervals, most of the reports for the period 1821 – 1851 were destroyed by fire, the original 1813 report vanished over time, and the reports for the years 1861 and 1871 were destroyed by the Irish Government upon their completion. The reports of 1881 and 1891 were reduced to paper pulp due to a shortage of paper during the First World War.

For this reason many researchers looking for Irish ancestors turn to Census supplements or substitutes such as Griffith’s Valuation and the Tithe Applotment Books.