Sources of Census Information

Essentially, there are three types of available census information:

  • The actual census books
    The real original census enumerators' books, hand written. Something that you should always strive to obtain after locating an ancestor in a transcript or index.
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  • Transcripts of census data
    Typed out transcripts of the original books. Some transcripts are more complete than others.
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  • Indexes for census data
    Extremely valuable finding aids. Mostly produced by county family History societies.


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Further help with census information

Another good source of information about censuses is the mailing list (a discussion forum) on British-Genealogy.com

See the GEN-Census mailing list page for more information and how to subscribe.

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Original census enumerators' books on CD

Original Census Enumerators' Books

The original documents are all stored in safe keeping at the Public Record Office at Kew, London.

They are fragile old documents that are now stored in controlled conditions. Unfortunately, over the years, this was not always the case, and some have been damaged by use, damp, and vermin, and some were lost.

Many have faded over the years, due to poor quality (or watered down) ink having been used when they were written. Most, however, are in very good condition indeed.

Almost all of the surviving census enumerator's books have been microfilmed. Whereas most of the films are very good, there are some that are less so.

Some census enumerator's books have been digitised from the microfilm (or from microfiche), and are available on the Internet, or on CD from various publishers. Except for a few tests, none have been digitised from the original documents.

The golden rule: whenever you trace an ancestor in a census index or transcription, you should always look at, and if possible, obtain a print of, the original page of the census enumerator's book.

There are many researchers who prefer to search though the original books rather than rely on an index or transcription. With the best will in the world, there will always be errors and omissions in those. Searching through the original books is a little time-consuming, but you will always spot the name you are looking for. Your brain is conditioned to do that for a name that you know, no matter how faded, no matter how poor the handwriting, or no matter how mis-spelled. Your own name will jump out of the page at you.

Accessibility of films and fiche

Films and microfiche of the census enumerators' books can be viewed at:

  • The Public Record Office at Kew, London
  • The Family Record Centre, Myddleton Street, London
  • A County Record Office
  • Local Studies Libraries
  • Any LDS Family History Centre, anywhere in the world.
    (Look in your local phone book for Church of Latter Day Saints - phone and ask them where the nearest Family History Centre is).

Access is free at any of those places.

Digitised images on the Internet

It is possible to view some of the census enumerators' books on the Internet. For a fee. They are all digitised from either microfilm, or microfiche. Those digitised from good quality film are better than those from fiche. A lot better. Some are adequate, and some are poor. Few can be described as being excellent quality. There is a trade-off between image quality and file size on the Internet, and generally speaking, quality suffers.

The 1901 census of England and Wales is available in full from the PRO census web site. The images are generally of a medium to good quality. It is accompanied by a relatively poor index, which is used as the finding tool. Unfortunately, the index was prepared by inmates in British prisons, and about 60% of the indexing was subcontracted to the Indian sub-continent. The index is of relatively questionable quality, and therefore you may well search for an ancestor in the index and not find him/her, even though they may be in the original documents. There is no way to view or search through the original documents without first paying for each page view.

Some other companies are now making digitised images of the census enumerator's books available on the Internet. Quality can be described as being poor to middle. Some have indexes as a finding tool, but most of those indexes are of an extremely poor quality indeed. Much worse than those for the 1901 PRO on-line census. Usually, it is possible to scan search through the documents without additional charges being made, but quality of the images tends to make that a difficult exercise.

Digitised images on CD

A relatively limited number of censuses are available on CD. These are digitised from either microfilm or microfiche under licence from the Public Record Office.

Quality of scanning is variable. Those scanned from high quality silver halide films, at a high resolution, are generally excellent. Those scanned from microfiche are much less so, as the fiche are second generation copies of films at a greatly reduced image size. Those scanned at a high resolution from film are capable of being magnified greatly on screen without loss of detail. Those scanned from microfiche tend to "pixellate"You see black squares instead of more detail as part of the image the more that you increase the magnification when magnified on screen.

Having your own copy of the full set of census enumerator's books is a massive aid to your research. You can browse them at your own convenience, they are not especially expensive (a set for all the Registration Districts of a single county contain tens of thousands of page images), and you can print copies of pages for your own family history file. You can use them in conjunction with published indexes.

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Original census enumerators' books on CD


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Transcripts of census data

A transcript is a typed copy of information from the original census enumerators' books. Some transcripts omit some of the information. Transcripts are of variable quality. Some have serious errors and omissions, and some are very good indeed, having been checked and double checked.

The best transcripts available are those from:

  • County Family History Societies
    For information about family history societies and how to contact them, see the GENUKI web pages under the relevant county. Transcripts produced by family history societies are done by people with good local knowledge. It is usual for a fee to be charged for a family history society publication, which may be in the form of a booklet, microfiche or CD.
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  • The FreeCEN project
    This is freely available to all on the Internet, and is totally free to access. A wonderful project in every respect. You can do searches on the on-line database, using various filters. The FreeCEN database is relatively new, and is now growing at a massive rate to include more counties, and more census years. It is a user-supported project, and you too can become a transcriber. For more details see the web pages of the FreeCEN project.

Other census transcripts available on CD

1881 Census

The LDS have a full set of transcripts available on CD for the 1881 census of Britain. It is very inexpensive! The quality is quite good, although there are some errors and omissions. Having said that, it is a must for anyone with interests in British family history. The 1881 Census CD set is £29.95

1851 Census

The LDS also produce a CD that covers the 1851 census for the counties of Norfolk, Warwickshire and Devon. Again, very good, and inexpensive. The 1851 Three Counties disk is £5.95

There is also an "1851 British Census" CD available from various companies that is not all that it would appear to be. Be aware that this is not the full 1851 census as the tile would suggest, but a 2% sample of the British 1851 census. You may get lucky by owning a copy, but it is far from being a complete research tool.

Census transcripts should not be treated as primary evidence. Only a copy of the original document can be that. Transcripts contain errors and omissions.

Further help with census information

Another good source of information about censuses is the mailing list (a discussion forum) on British-Genealogy.com

See the GEN-Census mailing list page for more information and how to subscribe.



Indexes for census data

There are some good indexes, and some very poor indexes. There is no such thing as a complete index to all British censuses.

Published indexes vary from those containing just a surname, piece and folio number through to some that contain forenames, ages and occupations too. Several family history societies have produced indexes to censuses for their county, at least for the census of some years.

Indexes are a "finding tool". One should always make a note of the relevant piece and folio number, and then obtain a copy of the original document.

One of the big problems about indexes are the errors and omissions. A good family history society index will have been checked and double checked. (Even then, it will not be perfect). Many indexes have not been checked, especially those produced in the Indian sub-continent that have been used on some web sites for linking to image files. Some of those are extremely poor indeed, and cannot be relied upon not to have errors and omissions. Therefore, because your ancestor doesn't show up, doesn't mean that he was not there!



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