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Everything you need to know about UK census records

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Niall Cullen
22 August 2019

Find out key UK census dates, when the next census will be released and more...

Census records are some of the most important resources for British family history. They help you track how your family changed over time and reveal information about your ancestors that you won’t find anywhere else. Historical censuses are held by The National Archives but are also available as online records at Findmypast.

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This handy guide explains the context behind census records, what they can tell you about your family history and some important dates to watch out for now and in the future.

What is a census?

Censuses are recorded by governments periodically and act as population reports. The process usually involves all householders completing census forms that list information about their lives and their family. From a genealogy perspective, this makes the historical records that are left behind invaluable snapshots of your relatives at a given point in time.

How often is the census?

In the UK, censuses have been taken every 10 years since 1801 with just one exception. The 1941 census didn’t happen due to the Second World War.

That wasn't the only problem to affect census records during wartime. A fire in 1942 completely destroyed the 1931 census for England and Wales. For family history, a useful way to bridge that gaping records gap is by using the 1939 Register as a census substitute.

UK census dates throughout history

From 1801 to 1831, census records were used to create summaries of localities and later destroyed. So, for family historians, the full censuses dating from 1841 to 1911 are the ones of real interest.

Here’s a brief summary on the history of British censuses and what these detailed family records can tell you.

1801 census

The first UK census was taken on 10 March 1801 but no longer exists apart from fragments like 1801 Kent, Dartford Census.

1811 census

Taken on 27 May 1811, very few of the records survive.

1821 census

Like those before it, very little remains of the 1821 census which took place on 28 May that year. You’ll find some of the remaining exceptions from Kent, Westminster and Orkney on Findmypast.

1831 census

This census was taken on 30 May 1831. Excerpts from Westminster, Sheffield and Shrewsbury survive, among others.

The first fully surviving UK census was taken on 6 June 1841.

Findmypast - London office

1841 census return from Lambeth

The 1841 census can reveal useful information for your family tree including:

  • Names
  • Ages
  • Genders
  • Addresses
  • Birth places

The 1851 census took place on 30 March that year.

Findmypast - London office

1851 census return from Greenwich

As well as all of the information included in the 1841 census, this edition also features more information on your family’s relationships. Each entry includes:

  • Relationship to head of household
  • Marital status

Taken on 7 April 1861, this census includes all of the same information as the one that was recorded a decade earlier.

Findmypast - London office

1861 census return from Manchester

On Findmypast, as well searching census records by person, you can also switch to a dedicated address search. This is perfect for tracing who used to live at your address or how your local area has changed over time.

Another UK census was recorded in England, Scotland and Wales on 2 April 1871.

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1871 census return from Northamptonshire

The information that was captured in the previous two censuses was sought again in 1871.

Transcripts of the 1881 UK census, recorded on 3 April that year, are free to access on Findmypast.

Findmypast - London office

1881 census return from Cardiff

Like previous censuses, details on names, ages, addresses and family relationships are included.

For the first time, the UK census recorded a person’s employment status in 1891. This adds even more colour as you build a detailed picture of your ancestors’ lives.

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1891 census return from Newcastle

This census took place on 5 April 1891.

The first UK census of the 20th century requested the same information as the one before it. It was taken on 31 March 1901.

Findmypast - London office

1901 census return from Cornwall

As well as individuals residing in households, censuses also record people on board docked ships, hospital patients, prisoners, workhouse inmates and military personnel stationed in barracks.

The 1911 census was taken on 2 April that year and is the most recent census currently open to the public. It’s often a must-search starting point for anyone new to British family history.

Findmypast - London office

1911 census return from Liverpool

The 1911 census contains far more information than any census that came before it. For the first time, the census recorded:

  • Nationality
  • Marriage length
  • The number of children who were born, who died and who were still living

Scotland's census from 1911 is only available online at scotlandspeople.gov.uk.

When will census records next be released?

Due to UK privacy laws, 100 years must pass before the public can access census records. The 1921 census is the next census to be released. It's scheduled to arrive in 2022 and you’ll only find it online at Findmypast.

When is the next UK census?

The next UK census is scheduled to take place in 2021, a decade on from the most recent one in 2011. Just imagine, generations from now, your descendants might be checking it to find out more about you.