Census Returns

Example census form from 1851
Sample of 1851 census return for Martham

An alphabetical list of those people recorded on census returns is available here for the following years, click on the link:-

A census is a head count of everyone in the country on a given day. A full census has been taken in England and Wales every ten years since 1841, apart from 1941.

The object of the census was not to obtain detailed information about individuals, but to provide information about the population as a whole; listing everyone by name, wherever they happened to be on a single night, was the most efficient way to count everybody once, and theoretically nobody twice.

In every census year heads of households were instructed to give details of everyone who slept in that dwelling on the census night. From 1841 to 1901 the information from the schedules was then copied into enumeration books. Once the enumeration books had been completed, most household schedules were destroyed, although some survived. It is the enumeration books that form the basis of the records we have today. If the enumerator got it wrong or had poor handwriting errors could creep in when the records were transcribed.

The 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual, which makes it the earliest useful census for family historians. However, less information was collected in 1841 than in later census years, for instance relationships were not recorded; ages of adults could be rounded and exact places of birth were not requested.

From 1851 the person’s relationship to the head of the household and marital status were gathered, as well as whether they have a disability.

The 1911 census is special, because you can view the original household schedules. This means you can read your relatives’ details in their own handwriting and often see personal comments.

The dates of censuses were as follows:

  • 1841 – 6 June
  • 1851 – 30 March
  • 1861 – 7 April
  • 1871 – 2 April
  • 1881 – 3 April
  • 1891 – 5 April
  • 1901 – 31 March
  • 1911 – 2 April

The results of the 1921 census will not be released until 2021.


Original data: Crown copyright images reproduced by courtesy of TNA, London England. 1939 Register (Series RG101), and/or  public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0. The National Archives, Kew, London, England. The National Archives give no warranty as to the accuracy, completeness or fitness for the purpose of the information provided. Images may be used only for purposes of research, private study or education.