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Ask the expert: finding a lost ancestor in 19th-century census records

3-4 minute read

By The Findmypast Team | June 18, 2024

Findmypast's expert genealogist turns to 1881 Census records to answer a community member's family history mystery.

For this instalment of Ask the Expert, Michael Sheppard has a question about a disappearing relative in the 1881 Census of England, Scotland & Wales. Read on to delve into the issues surrounding using census records to research your military ancestors.

Michael asks:

"My grandfather was Sylvester Sheppard born 27 April 1857 in Ubley, Somerset. He enlisted in the Grenadier Guards in 1877 Service No.5924. stationed at Horse Guards until 1883 and transferred to the Reserve until 1889. I can't find him in the 1881 Census. Do you have any idea how to find this record? Would the army have had its own record of this census?"

Here's what Findmypast's genealogy expert Stephen has to say...

Thanks for your question about Sylvester Sheppard. The short answer to your question is 'no', but we can learn a lot about wider research from your inquiry. Let's dig in.

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Firstly, it’s worth summarising the situation about each of the censuses for England and Wales that were taken every ten years between 1841 and 1911. These are available, fully name-searchable, on Findmypast. You can also search the 1921 Census of England and Wales, which is available online exclusively at Findmypast.

Here's the situation of armed forces returns in each of the censuses from 1841 to 1911:

Although any individuals serving in the armed forces stationed within England and Wales (or Channel Islands or Isle of Man) should be enumerated at their barracks or garrison in all of the above, you will quickly see that there is tremendous scope for our ancestors to be missing from a census return due to service abroad (including, for that matter, Scotland or Ireland).

This is particularly true for 1901, as the census was taken on 31 March, during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). It is not unusual to see wives and children enumerated at home with a remark that the head of household is on overseas service.

One of these holes has been largely filled by the publication of the 1861 Worldwide Army Index on Findmypast. This covers approximately 245,000 British and Irish soldiers who were stationed overseas in a census year. As the 1861 Census already covers the Royal Navy and a portion of the merchant navy, the publication of the 1861 Worldwide Army Index goes some way towards completing the coverage of the population in 1861. You can search this record set here.

To return to Michael's question, if you cannot find your Guards ancestor in the 1881 Census of England & Wales (and have also searched unsuccessfully the Scottish 1881 Census) this would imply that he was serving overseas and the censuses will remain forever silent as to his whereabouts.

There was no separate army census of the type to which you allude. However, his Chelsea Pensioner Army Service record states that he was at home from 1877 to 1889. I would expect 'at home' at that date to include Scotland and Ireland, so it may well be that Sylvester was elsewhere within the British Isles.

Incidentally, another notable gap in the coverage of census-taking was the merchant navy and the small fishing fleets and solitary vessels which were offshore or at sea on census night. While sometimes these men and boys were recorded as if they were at home on the date in question, or included in returns of boats in harbours, they are too often missing from censuses (the 1861 Census again being the only prominent exception to this rule).

Have you made a surprising family history discovery? Whatever you've uncovered about your past, we'd love to hear about it. You can now get in touch and tell us using this handy form.

UK Census records: FAQs

Where can I view the 1921 Census for free?

You can search the 1921 Census online at Findmypast - to find your ancestors in this landmark census for free, simply take out a Findmypast free trial.

Can I look at the 1881 Census for free?

The 1881 Census of England & Wales is free to search on Findmypast. You may learn key details about your 19th-century ancestor with the 1881 Census, including their birthplace, marital status, the surname of other household members and so much more.

Where are UK census records kept?

UK censuses from 1841 to 1921 are held by the National Archives, and stored at Kew in London. Thanks to massive digitisation efforts, these valuable records are now available to search and explore online at Findmypast.

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