Utilizing Census Returns

Census returns can be very valuable tools in tracking down our ancestors. For instance, the first census in the United Kingdom took place in 1801, with a census retaken every 10 years since then. There was one lapse in this cycle, 1941 was missed due to World War II. The very first censuses were nothing more than a count of total people, with personal details not being recorded until 1841. Since then, census has been fine tuned to ensure a comprehensive count and informative detail.

What is a Census?

The UK census is actually a survey of people residing in individual households or institutions (hospitals, prisons, elderly homes etc.) throughout the United Kingdom on a specific night. A standard form of information is issued to the head of each household or institution who records accurate details of each resident before returning the forms to the Census Bureau. The information the census requires is:

  • Each residents full name
  • Precise age of each person residing there
  • Their marital status
  • The relationship to the head of the household
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Place of Birth
  • Medical disabilities
  • Language spoken

People are encouraged to divulge true and accurate information by keeping the census records sealed for 100 years. When they are opened however, they can reveal a wealth of valuable genealogy information.

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What Information Can I find in a Census Return?

A census return is pretty much a snapshot of your family a hundred years ago. You can find new members of your family, verify their ages and other dates, and you can gain insight into their occupations and general health. You can also visualize what happened in the intervening years, though it is wise not to interpret too much. Beware of things like babies with the same name etc., they could be duplicates.

How Do I know Which Census to Use?

Census returns are organized according to the districts or areas in which the collection of information was done. Fortunately the original records are available on microfilm to ensure length of life, to find your ancestor though could be tricky. First you must find the exact reference for the microfilm where your ancestor's return is located. There are four recommended ways of doing so:

  1. Searching a name index. The most recent census available would be 1901, which would have a comprehensive name index. Census records before 1851 would not have many details. You can search the National Archives online here  http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/
  2. If your surname is not on the name index, but you know the village name where your ancestor lived, you can quickly find the surname within the town records.
  3. If you have a precise address, you can quickly find the census records within the town.
  4. If you don’t have a village name or precise address, you can search by county. Each county will have a name index compiled for each census taken within it.


Basically the more information you have on your ancestors, the more quickly you can locate them. However, sometimes the tedious and meticulous search of these records will reveal only a glimmer of insight into your family history. Don't be discouraged. One small bit of information can start your family tree sprouting like you wouldn't believe!

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If you initially don't find the information you're looking for, go back to basics and review what resources you already have. Precise addresses can be a huge advantage when searching through census records. Double check your family bibles and civil registration records for that one lead that can reveal the next generation of your family history.

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