Alongside birth, marriage and death records, census returns are likely to be amongst the first records that you encounter when researching your family tree – and are incredibly useful sources of information.
Lots of background info about the censuses of individual countries is available online. To give a potted overview of census records in the British Isles:- The first national census of England & Wales was taken in 1801, but records were not kept until 1841. UK census records remain confidential for 100 years so currently only records from 1841-1911 are available. Several genealogy websites including Ancestry, Find My Past and FamilySearch allow you to search England & Wales census indexes for free, although there is usually a charge to view full transcriptions and download documents (alternatively check whether you can access these sites via your local library). Scottish census records from 1841-1911 are available via Scotland’s People. Whilst a national Irish census started as early as 1821, records are much more patchy. Only the 1901 and 1911 censuses have survived in complete form, accessible free of charge on The National Archives of Ireland website.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to extract a great deal of detail from the census about your family history. The research tips suggested here apply not just to the national census records of the British Isles, but can also be used to get the most out of regional, city and state censuses as well as those in other countries, including the United States.
In general terms censuses are useful because they provide details about individuals within family groups or households. They tell you where your ancestor lived and what they did for a living, sometimes in quite a lot of detail. Searching the census is a lot easier if you know roughly what you are looking for, so keep on hand a list of names, nicknames and pseudonyms, approximate birth dates of birth, places associated with your family members and any other circumstantial information you have. With a few notable exceptions (such as Jewish and other migrant families), it is surprising how often ancestors are found exactly where you expect them to be.
Start big, go small
Unless you are dealing with an extremely common name, it generally works best to keep your initial search as broad as possible. Enter the name of the person you are searching for but avoid ‘exact matches’ in the search engine, and enter an age range rather than an exact age. Keeping things open helps avoid being tripped up by variant spellings, transcription errors and the outright fibs our ancestors sometimes told census enumerators! Searching by county is usually the most manageable method. Avoid limiting the search too specifically by place, unless you know for sure where your ancestors were living. Tracking down the right record is often simply a process of elimination. If you can’t find someone where you expect them to be, check neighbouring counties; ancestors living near county boundaries can be a real stumbling block. It is also a good idea to keep a note of where you have looked.
Experiment with different search engines
Bear in mind that though only one census was taken, different organisations have over the years produced different indexes to the same census records, which can vary quite considerably. Each index is only as good as the transcriber. Unusual or foreign-sounding names, or simply poor handwriting can cause problems. For this reason it is sometimes worth doing the same search on a couple of different websites; for example, Ancestry and Find My Past have different search engines.
Go wild with wildcards
Sometimes it is possible to locate hard-to-find relatives by second-guessing transcription errors in the index, or the original mistakes a census enumerator might have made. Ancestors did not always have the opportunity or literacy to be able to correct mistakes. In England & Wales, it was not until 1911 that families were left to fill out census forms for themselves and so are prone to error, even with common names: Stephens mis-transcribed as Stevens, for example. In these cases, difficult-to-find ancestors can sometimes be located using wildcard searches. I am currently researching a family called Slavotinsky but could only find records using the wildcard search: Sl*v*t*nsk*. Equally, it can be helpful to leave first names open; often people go by middle names and nicknames which can confuse census searching.
Sometimes it is difficult to know whether a census record is right, even when certain details seem to match. This is especially relevant when searching common surnames: Davies in Wales is especially problematic! It is crucial to analyse the record carefully for circumstantial clues and consider the balance of probabilities. Don’t be put off if certain pieces of information in a census return don’t seem to fit. A missing child, an inconsistent age, even a different name does not necessarily mean the record is not right. For a variety of reasons, accidental and non-, census information can be wrong. If you can, cross-check problem records against censuses from other years and vital records. Information from vital records should be considered more reliable.
Look for the stories
If you can’t find a particular individual you expect to see in a family census record, seek out other records to explain the possible reasons why. Have they died or got married? Are they in service? Are they in the military or in prison? Or have they simply moved away? Looking at census records for one family over a span of 10, 40 or 70 years can tell you a huge amount about the shape of their lives and the key events that took place in them.
Spy on the neighbours!
Don’t forget that families were, by and large, not so widely spread as they are today. Sometimes by looking at neighbours’ entries on a census, and a page or two either side, you can find details of other relatives living nearby. In this way, census records tell us quite a bit about the social conditions and kinship groups in which ancestors lived.