WR banner pic

Census Returns: A short history


Census returns are perhaps the most valuable of all historical records.

There has been a census every ten years since 1801, except in 1941 due to the war. However, only those that date from 1841 are of real value for research purposes today.

Census records are closed for 100 years, to protect the privacy of those possibly still living.

The 1921 census is therefore the latest available for research. Unfortunately, on the night of Saturday 19 December 1942, the 1931 census schedules, enumeration books and plans were completely destroyed by a fire at the Office of Works store in Hayes, Middlesex. (The census for Scotland was not affected by this fire since it was stored separately in Edinburgh.)

The 1841 census was the first to record names, but it did not state which person was head of the household. Relationships to the head are therefore not shown, so relationships between family members are not always as clear as in later returns. The recorded age of anyone over 15 was supposed to be rounded down to the nearest multiple of 5. For example, a person aged 19 would be listed as 15, a person aged 22 would be listed as age 20, and a person age 59 would be listed as 55. In practice, many census officials either did not round down at all or only rounded down for higher ages, such as over 20, or (less frequently) rounded down ages below 15. As such, in many cases the recorded age is often an unreliable indicator of birth years. Also, birthplaces are not shown, only whether a person was born in the County in which they lived.

From 1851, householders were asked to give more precise details of the places of birth of each resident, to state their relationship to him or her, marital status and the nature of any disabilities from which they may have suffered. The 1911 census provides some extra information, not present in earlier censuses, about how long women had been married and the number of children born to that marriage – both alive and dead.

The 1921 census not only asked individuals about their age, birthplace, occupation and residence (including the names of other household members and the number of rooms), but also their place of work, employer details, and gave 'divorced' as an option for marital status.

Enumeration forms were distributed to all households a couple of days before census night. The complete forms were collected the next day. In the many cases where householders could not read and write, enumerators would ask the questions verbally, and complete the form themselves.

All responses reflected the status of everyone who had spent the appointed night in the house. People who were travelling were enumerated at the location where they spent the night so may not appear at their “home” address with other family members.

From 1841 to 1901, all the details from the individual forms were sorted and copied into enumerators' books, which are the records we can view today. The original householders’ schedules were destroyed.

The 1911 and 1921 censuses had a key difference from their predecessors. The individual forms filled in by each family are available, rather than the enumerators' books that brought them all together and listed different households on the same page. It means you can read your ancestors' original handwriting and see the head of the household’s signature.

After being delayed by two months due to industrial unrest, the 1921 census saw over 38,000 enumerators dispatched to every corner of England and Wales to capture the details of more than 38 million people. This included over 8.5 million households as well as all manner of public and private institutions ranging from prisons and military bases to public schools and workhouses.

Census dates

1841, taken for the night of 6th June

1851, taken for the night of 30th March

1861, taken for the night of 7th April

1871, taken for the night of 2nd April

1881, taken for the night of 3rd April

1891, taken for the night of 5th April

1901, taken for the night of 31st March

1911, taken for the night of 2nd April

1921, taken on the night of 19th June.

We can help trace your ancestors in the census returns* as a one-off piece of bespoke research, or as part of a fixed price package.

* Subject to availability. 1921 census may attract additional charges


Visit our Facebook page

Facebook Image
We use cookies

We use cookies on our website. Some of them are essential for the operation of the site, while others help us to improve this site and the user experience (tracking cookies). You can decide for yourself whether you want to allow cookies or not. Please note that if you reject them, you may not be able to use all the functionalities of the site.