Genealogical Ponderings

the Professional Family History Blog

Professional Family History Blog
  1. Starting Family History: Census records of England and Wales 1841-1911


    This forms the third part of my beginner’s guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death, Part 2 considered birth, marriage and death certificates in detail.

    A census of the population has been taken every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, the most recent having been taken in 2011. The census records are used alongside birth, marriage and death certificates to create the family tree, providing information as to an ancestor’s birthplace, place of residence, an idea of the social conditions in which an ancestor lived and information regarding other family members.

    The early censuses contain little information of interest to the family historian, as there was no requirement to record information specific to individuals. Whilst some questions were asked regarding the number of people employed in a particular trade and the age ranges of the household occupants, names of individuals were not, for the main part, recorded.

    The 1841 census was the first census to record names of individuals and was also the first census to be administered by the (then recently created) General Register Office. It was not without problems. There were errors caused by householders not understanding what information to include and many young children were omitted. There was significant mistrust as to what the information was to be used for, specifically people feared additional taxation, and some gave false information.

    For the 1851 census more information was made available in the period before the census concerning the correct completion of the schedules. However, more questions were asked than for the 1841 census so there were still errors and omissions caused by lack of understanding. In general terms the number of questions asked and level of information collected increased as the census continued. The information collected in the 1841-1901 censuses is summarised in Table 1 (click on on the table title link below for a larger version of the table). The 1911 census, the most recent census currently available to the public, reflected increasing concerns regarding the nation’s health and infant mortality. In addition to the type of information provided by the earlier censuses, the 1911 census also provides information as to the length of time a couple had been married, how many children they had had and how many were still alive.

    Table 1: Comparison of the Information Collected in the 1841-1901 CensusesTable 1: Comparison of the Information Collected in the 1841-1901 Censuses

    The enumerator collected the schedules the morning after census night. If the schedule was incomplete he was supposed to ask additional questions and complete the missing information. There will have been occasions where the enumerator completed the information based on his own knowledge or assumptions and introduced his own errors. If the householder had been unable to complete the schedule e.g. for reasons of illiteracy or illness, the enumerator completed it on their behalf. The information recorded in these cases is therefore written how the enumerator thought a name or place should be spelt. When all the household returns had been collected they were copied by the enumerator into an enumerator schedule or summary book.

    The original householder schedules for the 1841-1901 censuses have since been destroyed. All that is available are the pages of the enumerator books that contain copied entries of all the householder schedules in the enumeration district. It is likely that some transcription errors will have been introduced at this stage, some families missed and some even entered twice. The original household schedules are available for the 1911 census. The original enumerators’ books for the England and Wales 1841-1901 censuses and the original householders’ schedules for the 1911 census are held by The National Archives. These have been digitised and indexed and are available on websites such as, or

    It should be noted that the online indexes contain transcription errors resulting from the volunteer creating the index misreading the original image. In some cases this is due to the quality of the handwriting, in some the quality of the image used to produce the index. The censuses were not taken solely for the purposes of family history research; as the individual pages were categorised and processed a number of annotations were made and lines were crossed through the text. This can make some images very difficult to read. In other cases the errors may be attributed to the inexperience of the volunteers in reading the style of handwriting typical at the time of the particular census. If a family is not immediately found, it is usually possible to find them using a variety of “lateral thinking” methods as to how their name may have been misspelt on the transcription. Alternatively the census records for the address at which they were last known can be fruitful.

    An important point to note when searching the 1841 census is the instructions regarding ages. Adult ages were supposed to be rounded down to the nearest five years (not all were) with exact ages being recorded for those under 15 years. A wider range of birth years should therefore be employed when searching the 1841 census than the later censuses.

    The administration of the 1841-1911 censuses was organised by the registration districts and sub-districts defined for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Each sub-district was further broken down into enumeration districts. When the enumerators books had been completed they were organised into “pieces”. Whilst there were some subtle differences in how these were handled for the 1841 and 1911 census, for the 1851-1901 censuses, a piece is a bound volume containing a number of enumerator books. As each enumerator book will have contained the same page numbers e.g. 1-10, the bound volumes were then stamped on the right hand (recto) pages with an individual reference or “folio” number. One folio number refers to the numbered page and its reverse (versa). Each page of the enumerator book thus has a unique reference of the form:

    RG9 / 1206 / 85
    Call number (applied to the whole census) / piece number / folio number

    The dates of the censuses and their associated call numbers are:

    1841 Census HO 107 06 Jun 1841
    1851 Census HO 107 30 Mar 1851
    1861 Census RG 9 07 Apr 1861
    1871 Census RG 10 02 Apr 1871
    1881 Census RG 11 03 Apr 1881
    1891 Census RG 12 05 Apr 1891
    1901 Census RG 13 31 Mar 1901
    1911 Census RG 14 02 Apr 1911

    Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to

    Sources & further reading

    1.  M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
    2.  J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
    3.  P. Christian & D. Annal, Census: The Expert Guide, TNA, 2008
    4.  E. Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited,Institute of Historical Research in
    association with TNA, 2005
    5.  C. D. Rogers, The Family Tree Detective, 4thed., Manchester University Press, 2008

  2. Starting Family History: Birth, marriage and death certificates

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    This forms Part 2 of my beginner’s guides for those just starting out with their family history research in England and Wales. Part 1 looked at the General Register or GRO indexes of birth, marriage and death in detail. Next month’s blog will consider census records.

    On 1st July 1837 legislation took effect that ordered the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Certified copies of these entries from the registers form birth, marriage and death “certificates”.

    When embarking on a journey into the history of your family the most fundamental building blocks from 1837 onwards are birth, marriage and death certificates. These provide evidence as to the places of birth, marriage and death of your ancestors but also provide a variety of information about where they lived, other family members and how they earned a livelihood.

    The detail of the information contained in each type of certificate has changed over the years but is considered in general terms below:

    Birth certificates

    • Date of birth
      –      If a time is provided this is usually an indication of a multiple birth.
    • Place of birth
      –      Before c.1880 it was common for just a village name to be entered. Later entries
      tend to have more detail.
    • Forenames
      –      Some children were registered as simply “male” or “female”. This may have been because the parents had not yet decided on a name, the baby was to be given up for adoption or the baby died shortly after birth.
    • Sex
    • Father’s name
      –     Illegitimacy: Between 1837 and 1850 there was some confusion as to whether the name of the father of an illegitimate child should be included and so sometimes it was sometimes it was not. From 1851 to 1874 the father’s name and occupation should not have been recorded if the child was illegitimate. Following the Registration Act of 1875 and up to 1953 the father’s details could only be included if both parents signed as informants.
    • Mother’s name including maiden surname
      –      An entry such as “Mary Smith late Jones formerly Johnson” indicates that the mother’s maiden name was Johnson and that she married a Mr Jones before Mr Smith.
    • Father’s occupation
    • Signature, description and residence of the informant
    • Date of registration
      –      Births were required to be registered within 42 days of the birth, thus a birth on the 2nd  December may not have been registered until January of the following year.
      There are exceptions to this requiring authorisation of the Superintendent Registrar
      or Registrar General.

    Marriage certificates

    • Date of marriage
      –      Note that there is no separate column for date of registration as marriages were
      registered as they occurred.
    • Names of bride and groom
      –      These are the names at the time of marriage and may not necessarily be the name given at birth. Some certificates will include wording such as “otherwise known as” but not all.
    • Age of bride and groom at date of marriage
      –      In 1837 the legal ages of marriage were 12 years for a girl and 14 years for a boy, with parental consent required for those under age 21 years.
      –      From 1929 the legal age of marriage was changed to 16 years for either gender with parental consent still required for those under age 21 years.
      –      From 1969 the legal age of marriage remained 16 years for either gender but parental consent was only required for those under age 18 years.
      –      “Full age” indicates someone to be age 21 or over.
    • Marital status of bride and groom
    • Occupation of bride and groom
    • Residence at the time of marriage of bride and groom
    • Name and occupation of the fathers of the bride and groom
    • Names of witnesses

    Death certificates

    • Date and place of death
      –      As with birth certificates the level of detail increased with time. Note that someone could die some distance from home and that place of death does not indicate place of residence.
    • Sex
    • Age
      –      As this was provided by the informant it was not always accurate.
    • Occupation
      –      For wives, widows and children the occupations was usually given as “wife / widow / son / daughter of ….”
    • Cause of death
    • Name and surname of deceased
    • Informant’s details
      –      From 1875 the informant’s details included the relationship to the deceased and their qualification to be an informant, e.g. present at the death.
    • Date of registration
      –      Deaths were generally required to be registered within 5 days, though longer periods were allowed where a post-mortem and / or inquest was carried out.

    Many believe that the internet sites provide access to images of the birth, marriage and death registers. Unfortunately this is not the case: What can be searched are the national or General Register Office (GRO) indexes of births, marriages and deaths for each year (see previous blog post). Once a GRO reference has been found a copy of the certificate may be ordered from the General Register Office via: or phoning 0300 123 1837. Copies are available elsewhere but tend to be more expensive than the standard £9.25 per certificate charged by the GRO. An alternative source of information is to obtain the certificate from the local Superintendent Registrar.

    Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the content of this factsheet. Please send any comments to

    Sources & further reading:
    1.   M. Herber, Ancestral Trails, 2nd ed., The History Press, 2008
    2.  B. Dixon, England and Wales Birth, Marriage, and Death Certificate Information, web based version (
    3.   J. Cole & J. Titford, Tracing Your Family Tree, Countryside Books, 2003
    4.  C. Heritage, Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records – A Guide for Family
    Historians, Pen & Sword, 2013

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