The taking of the census began in 1801 and has continued every ten years. The first four were headcounts and contained no useful information for family historians. Very few of these survive and where they do they contain no personal information. However the statistics that were taken from these early censuses so survive and are very useful to historians.
The purpose of the census is to provide statistical information about the population for the government to facilitate long term planning. So from 1841 personal information was requested on the forms, delivered to households by enumerators. The census was to take place on a Sunday evening and then the forms were collected in the days that followed. The information was copied into books by the enumerators and sent to the Office of Population, Censuses and Surveys. Then the statistics were extracted, presented to Parliament and published. The census books were then closed for a hundred years.
The census was never intended to be a source for family history but is a most useful one. The earlisest surviving census is that of 1841. It contains limited information: names of people in the household, age (rounded down in fives after age 14 years), gender, occupation and whether or not born in the county. The end of each household is only signalled by two strokes after the last name on the left-hand side of the column. It is more limited than the ones that followed.
After 1851, responsibility for the census passed from the Home Office to the General Register Office but from 1851 to 1881 the enumerator books have exactly the same format. They also include some additional information to that on the 1841 census: the relationship to the head of the household, marital condition and, most importantly for family historians, the place of birth.
In 1891 and 1901 the format remained the same except for the addition of slightly different columns for employment status.
Addresses, even in the 1901 census are inclined to be haphazard. In cities and towns there will be street names but not always with house numbers. In villages there are rarely street names, sometimes obscure descriptions and no numbers.
Sometimes words that are used in the census have a different meaning today. For instance you will often see the words son/daughter - law applied to a child. The meaning then equates with stepson/daughter now.
You will also find a lot of abbreviations in the occupation column. Some examples of the most common are: FWK = Framework Knitter, Ag Lab = Agricultural Labourer, FS = Farm Servant, Dom = Domestic. You should always bear in mind that the forms may have been filled in with a certain amount of reluctance and that the provider of the information may have been somewhat economical with the truth.
Censuses are now available on the Internet. However, you are strongly advised to use the indexes and then pay to view the original document rather than a transcript which may be inaccurate.
The 1911 census has recently been made available on the Internet at www.1911census.co.uk although the normal release on microfiche will not take place until January 2012. In this census, for the first time, we are able to look at the original forms that were completed by individuals. The enumerators' books have only been used where the forms are unavailable.
Census Dates for Available Censuses
(the census was always taken on a Sunday from 1831)
1841 6 June
1851 30 March
1861 7 April
1871 2 April
1881 3 April
1891 5 April
1901 31 March
1911 2 April