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Making sense of census records

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Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway | 11:15 UK time, Tuesday, 20 December 2011

When researching family history the best place to start is often with census records. These are an invaluable resource containing vast amounts of information which can help you track your ancestors; identifying where they lived, who they lived with, ages, gender, where they were born, marital status, occupation and even what language they spoke.

The first accessible census is from 1841 and the most recent is from 1911. They took place every 10 years but be prepared for some anomalies thrown into the equation to keep you on your toes.

Don't forget that if you live in England and Wales you can pop along to your local library and use Ancestry there, with the help of staff in the local history or reference section, and see the 1911 census for Wales for nothing.

Cat Whiteaway and Susan Sarandon

Cat Whiteaway and Susan Sarandon

Susan Sarandon's ancestor Susanna Beams was born in 1853 into a family of simple labourers from Ludgershall in Wiltshire. I managed to trace several generations of the family within one parish, where they happily stayed and ended up buried in the parish churchyard.

On the 1861 census the surname has been mistranscribed as Bearns, but thankfully someone else had spotted this and submitted an amendment - something you should always do to help others who are trying to follow the same research path.

But by the time of the 1871 census Susanna suddenly disappears and moved to London, where I found her called simply Susan and listed as a housemaid in Portland Square, one of 8 servants. Very Downton Abbey!

In the 1860s Wiltshire suffered poor harvests due to severe weather, which forced the price of corn sky high. Perhaps this drove Susanna to leave her home.

By 1876 she was on board the SS Aragon setting sail for a new life in America. Susanna is proof indeed that you should never assume that your ancestors stayed put in one place and had no aspirations for a better life beyond the parish of their birth. Even if she was incorrectly listed as being aged 20 and married!

Of course the information on a census return is only as good as the person offering it, or perhaps the person writing it down (usually an enumerator), and there is also a chance that the person transcribing the details for indexing on the online databases makes a typing error. Don't forget that most of the enumerators in the 19th century would have been English speaking and so a lot of the Welsh names and locations are the subject of mis-interpretation. Gethyn quickly becomes Gething whilst Aneurin becomes Anewrin!

And even today if you ask someone where they are from some people give their birthplace, some say where they spent their childhood and others simply give the place they are now or the only place they can remember let alone spell.

Sometimes a child can be aged two in 1851, 11 in 1861, 23 in 1871 and by the time they get to 1901 they could be 47 or 57 or anything in between. Obviously this is related to the level and quality of their education. As a person increases in age I usually give them a five year time period either side of their actual birth year just to be sure of finding them.

So be prepared for the fact that while you might not find your ancestors immediately, they should be down on a census somewhere during their lives even if they are in a prisoner, hospital, asylum or workhouses or even on board a ship in port. Be patient and don't forget to use wild cards (*) and try all the possible spellings.

Belonging and Casualty actor Charles Dale

Belonging and Casualty actor Charles Dale finds out about his roots in Coming Home

Read Cat's other useful articles on tracing your family tree.

You can watch Casualty actor Charles Dale trace his family roots on Coming Home, Wednesday 21 December at 8.30pm on BBC One Wales.


  • Comment number 1.

    As you may be aware America releases Census records after 72 years.
    We can currently see the 1930 Census but in April we can see the 1940 Census records.
    I know the reason given in the UK as to why we have to wait 100 years but surely this is now outdated and we should be able to view Census records earlier than 100 years.


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