Tracing your family tree

Census returns

A census has been taken every 10 years since 1801. Until 1841 however, the records provided little more than statistical information.

Censuses are kept confidential for 100 years, so currently the most recent available census is from 1911.

Census returns are available to search and view at Find My Past, Ancestry and the Genealogist and on microfilm or fiche at the NRO and NHC.

The pre-1841 censuses survive for a few individual parishes, but often do not provide genealogical information. Most of those which survive for Norfolk have been transcribed and are available online.

The 1911 census records are the original schedules, often completed in your ancestor’s handwriting. However, the 1841-1901 censuses have been scanned from the enumerators’ books. The enumerator was the person who collected completed forms from households and copied the entries into a volume.

The census has evolved over time. In 1841, relationships to the head of the household were not given, so you need to check inferred relationships with parish registers or other sources.

Birthplaces were not given beyond stating whether an individual was born “in County” or “in Scotland, Ireland or Foreign Parts”.

Ages were usually rounded down to the nearest five years for all those over 15.

From 1851 to 1901, the census provides places of birth, relationships to the head of household and sometimes more details about an individual’s address and occupation.

By 1911, it also includes:

  • How many rooms are in the household
  • The number of years each couple has been married
  • How many children each woman has given birth to
  • How many children are still living

While the census is very useful, bear in mind that it was a snapshot of each household on one night and does not always show those who usually lived there.

Some family members may be missing, while other people may have been visiting and so absent from their usual abode.

Ages may be inaccurate and places of birth are sometimes wrong or may have been misheard or misspelled by the enumerator.

Treat each piece of information with caution and gather more evidence where possible, as with all family sources.