Background and Overview of the England and Wales Censuses
Census returns are subject to a hundred-year non-disclosure rule. Copies of census returns are available for public inspection for the years 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901 and 1911.
The administration of early census returns from 1801 to 1831 was the responsibility of the Overseers of the Poor and the clergy. The information in these early censuses was used to determine population size, the occupations of the population and the condition of the housing stock. These returns were used as statistical tools and are not generally used by genealogists because of the limited information they contain.
After 1841 the administration of censuses became the undertaking of the Registrar General and the Superintendant Registrars, who were responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths.
In order to minimise the risk of omissions or counting people twice, it was necessary to ensure that everyone completed their census return on the same day. In order to properly manage the administration, the country was divided up into enumeration districts, based mostly on existing parishes. Larger parishes were subdivided further, and each area was allocated to a census enumerator.
Each household was supplied with a pre-printed census schedule by the census enumerators (often schoolmasters) before the predetermined census date.
Householders were instructed to complete their individual household schedules, listing the names of those who had been in their household over the period between Sunday night and Monday morning. The census enumerators then collected the household schedules the morning after the census night.
If the schedules had not been properly completed, the enumerator was supposed to ask for extra details at the doorstep, although it is clear that this was not done uniformly. If the householder was unable to fill in the schedule, perhaps because he or she was illiterate, the census enumerator was to fill it in for them. This means that the enumerator had to rely on transcribing spoken words, which may have resulted in some mis-spelling of names.
These individual household schedules - which have sadly since been destroyed - were then transcribed into the census enumerators' books, together with statistical information, and it is from these books that copies of the census returns can be obtained.
Census returns are held at:
- The National Archives (England and Wales returns only)
- District Libraries, County Record Offices and FHS research rooms usually have copies of the returns for their own area
- The Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) has copies of the census microfilms. These normally need to be ordered, unless you are visiting a branch of the LDS in the same area as the returns in which you are interested
Before making a trip to a library or record office, it's advisable to check the exact whereabouts of the census returns you want to view, and to see if you need to book your visit in advance.