British Censuses

There are some isolated surviving earlier censuses for a few places in earlier years of the 1800s, (from 1801), but the first major national census of use to family historians was carried out in 1841. Subsequent censuses were taken every ten years, 1851, 1861 etc. (with the exception of 1941 during World War 2, when no census was taken).

Access to censuses is restricted under a 100 year rule. Therefore, the latest census that can be viewed by the public is the one for 1901.

General Census Information

What is available - Sources

Problems with censuses

Census Sample Pages

Some Census Odds and Ends

Census Dates

A census was taken to record those living in a household at midnight on a Sunday. The dates of the census varied from year to year.

  • Sun/Mon. 6/7th June 1841
  • Sun/Mon. 30/31st March 1851
  • Sun/Mon. 7/8th April 1861
  • Sun/Mon. 2/3rd April 1871
  • Sun/Mon. 3/4th April 1881
  • Sun/Mon. 5/6th April 1891
  • Sun/Mon. 31st March / 1st April 1901

Earlier censuses?

Yes, the census was first carried out in 1801, and there were censuses in 1811, 1812, 1821 and 1831. The original enumerators' books were not kept, except in a few isolated cases, and even then, for a district rather than a whole county. They are very rare. The information contained in them is often stated as being "not much use" for family history. This is far from being the case. Generally however, they contain the name of the head of the household, occupation, and a few other details such as the number of males and females in the house. There may also be other information, such as the rent, number of windows, and number of dogs.

An example of an 1821 census page for Hendon (North London) by courtesy of Archive CD Books. (The full set of census books, covering Hendon, Highwood Hill and part of Mill Hill) is available on CD from Archive CD Books )

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Public Record Office Census References

The census records at the PRO are classified under the following:
1841 HO107
1851 HO107
1861 RG9
1871 RG10
1881 RG11
1891 RG12
1901 RG13

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Registration Districts

Censuses are not strictly organised by county. They are organised by Registration Districts, and a set of "county" Registration Districts do not correspond exactly with geographical county boundaries.

That can make it a little confusing at times, because a place can be on one county, but may appear in a Registration District of a different, adjacent county.

A set of census records for a Registration District may omit some places within a county, and/or include places from adjacent counties.

There are usually many different Registration Districts, and sub-districts in each county.

Registration Districts as applied to censuses, also applied to reigitrations of births, marriages and deaths.

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In which Registration District is a place?

Important! : Census Registration Districts do not coincide exacly with county boundaries!

Registration Districts may contain some places in other counties, and may omit some border places in a county.

Registration Districts are a PRO classification that applies to census records and also to birth, marriage and death registrations.

To find out which Piece Number covered a certain PLACE, use the PRO online catalogue <>.

  1. 'Search' is the easiest method.
  2. First click 'Search the catalogue'
  3. Then in the 3 boxes type in the placename, 1861, & RG9
    (1841 and 1851 is HO107, 1861 is RG9, 1871 is RG10, 1881 is RG11, 1891 is RG12, 1901 is RG13)
  4. then click Search.

The result will look something like this:

PRO Reference Title/Scope Content Covering Dates
RG 9/2442 Parish: Strelley 1861

(2442 is the census piece number)

Bear in mind, especially with places close to a county boundary that the place may well fall within the registration district for a different county than expected. But there is a way to find out within PRO-Cat.

If you click on one of the links for a place that you have found, you will be given more details. On the details page is a "tab" to look at the "Context". The context will also tell you the county in which the registration district falls. (Registration Districts do not coincidse exactly with county boundaries!)

Be a little wary of using "modern" place names in the search. As they are not in the PRO indexes. For example, Sandwell, which is in Staffordshire, and of course the Staffordshire census covers that area, but it is not listed in the PRO indexes.

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Census Pieces and Folios

One of the most important things to know about censuses, are the ways that they are referenced. Knowing the right reference for a census page lets you go straight to that page.

But censuses are not referenced by book and page numbers.

The references are by Piece and Folio, for example 2422/25,
or more accurately, RG9 2422/25 as the RG9 tells us that it is the 1861 census.

  • A census Piece is a collection of many individual enumerators' books for a district.
  • A census Folio is a sheet within one of those books
    (note: not a "page" - a folio is the front and back of a sheet, in other words, two pages)

Each enumerator had a pre-printed book that he had to fill in. A book may have anything from about 20 sheets up to about 40 (double sided). Those books were collected, and were later bound into combined books of between about 50 and 200 leaves. It is this combined book that is a census Piece.

After binding, the books had the folio number stamped on the upper right corner of every sheet. (The back of the sheet was not stamped). This stamped number is the Folio number.

Above: the stamped Folio number (12)
Note that the page number (21) is irrelevant now. It is the page number of that enumerator's individual book, and since his book will have been combined into a larger volume along with lots of other books, there will be many pages bearing the page number 21 ! So we don't use page numbers when stating a census reference!

So far so good.... folio 12 as shown above is the sheet of paper in the book. The folio number refers to both sides of that sheet, (originally pages 21 & 22).

Now, there is a problem that creeps in. When the pages were stamped with a folio number, then the person doing it often lost concentration. Therefore he often missed stamping a sheet, or stamped two consecutive sheets with the same number.

Therefore we can have some folio references that apply to four pages (or more) instead of two! It was a mistake.

When (if) the mistake was spotted, then the folio numbers were "fudged", as, for example 11a and 11b

Which illustrates our point nicely. In this case:

  • original book pages 17 &18 are Folio  11a
  • original book pages 19 and 20 are Folio 11b
  • and original book pages 21 and 22 are Folio 12

Summary: When stating a census reference always use the RG number (which identifies the year), followed by the census Piece number, followed by the census Folio number.

e.g. RG9 764/12 (in that format)

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Census Schedule Numbers,
and how the census was carried out

The extreme left hand column in a census enumerator's book shows a "Schedule Number".

Note also, as illustrated here, that each house has a separate schedule number. There is a "1" in the column for "Houses - Inhabited".

The enumerator also had instructions to make a double line // at the start of each household, as some houses could possibly contain more than one "household". (For example, in the case of apartments).

A Schedule Number should not be confused with a house number. Therefore it isn't possible to find a family, say at "113" High Street in 1861 and then to go look at schedule 113 in the 1871 census.

A Schedule is a piece of paper (a form) that the enumerator left at each household sometime during the week before the census was taken. It was the responsibility of the head of the household to see that the form was filled in, listing the details of the people who resided (slept) in the house at midnight on the Sunday night of the censusMembers of the household who were working a night shift could be included. Each form (Schedule) had a unique identifying number.

Above: A householder's Schedule. This was filled in by the householder and collected by the enumerator a few days later.

In many cases, the original schdule was filled in by a child rather than by the head of the household. The reason is simple. During the 1800s the children went to school, or Sunday school, and learned to read and write, whereas parents (of the older generation) could often not be able to read and write.

It is a common myth that a census enumerator knocked on doors and asked who was present, and then wrote down the details, often mis-hearing, or mis-spelling. No. Sure, there may have been isolated examples of that having been done, but this is very rare!

During the week following census night, the enumerator visited all of the houses, and collected the forms. (The Schedules), and then he collated them, and then wrote them up into his enumerator's book, in schedule number order. The enumerator may have found it difficult to interpret the handwriting on the schedule, and he may have mis-transcribed some details.

I have such an example with my own great grandparents. In the 1881 census, William Neep is enumerated as William Heap. The answer is very simple. He always wrote his upper case "N" in a way that looks like a large "n", which the enumerator took for an "H". (My grandfather, my father, and I all use that same large "n" in our signatures! It was something that was passed down through the family).

The original Schedules (forms) have very rarely survived. A pity, because it is those that are the original records, albeit not the official ones.

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Copyright ©2003 Rod Neep. All Rights Reserved