Now you have your bmd’s and your family history; you should be to the point where you can start researching by using the census records. When you search census records you begin to increase your family tree by quite a lot very quickly, but how do you search census records? It differs slightly in each country, but they all have useful information on.

Searching UK census records.

The useful UK records are every ten years 1841 to 1911. In the UK census records are released after 100 years have passed. However, if you are checking UK census’ you get a bonus here with the 1939 census. The 1939 census is available from Findmypast and if you don’t have a subscription, you can pay-to-view. However, if you haven’t used your free trial, you could use it now. The records have people who are still alive crossed out, but you can find people who have died since 1939 on there. However, people who have passed away since 1991 are not all available, and if you want to see them, you have to produce a death certificate which can be costly. If you know enough about the family, you can usually find what you need.

1939 wasn’t a census, it was produced to issue identity papers, and later to facilitate the issuing of ration books. It, therefore, had slightly different information on. It contains:

  • Full name
  • Address
  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Marital status
  • In Institutions – role
  • Occupation

The 1931 Census was destroyed, and 1941 wasn’t taken due to the war, so this is the only record the UK have between 1921 (due out on 2022) and 1951 which probably won’t be released before 2051.

The census from1851-1901 contain:

  • Name – first, middle initial and surname
  • Relationship to the head of the household – usually eldest male
  • Marital status
  • Age last birthday
  • Gender
  • Occupation or income source
  • Where born, county and parish if in England or Wales
  • Whether they had certain disabilities
  • Full address and more information about dwelling with each census

The 1841 census had much less information but included:

  • First name and surname
  • Age, but rounded down to the nearest 5 for anyone over 15
  • Gender
  • Occupation
  • Whether they were born in the county they presently lived (Y or N)
  • If they were born in Scotland, Ireland or foreign parts (S, I or F)

Very little information about where they lived was given in the early census’, and in rural areas, there was often only the village name.

The 1911 census gave more helpful information to people trying to trace their family history. It included all the above and:

  • The length of the present marriage, number of children born to the marriage and number of children still alive
  • Detailed information about occupation
  • More nationality information
  • Exact birthplaces of people born in Scotland and Ireland.

The census’ was also taken in 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831, but there is no central list of names for these, and they were not collected centrally. If you are lucky you may find copies locally, but not very often.

Other countries also had census’ which people can look at. Many are online and have different rules for disclosure. You may be able to consult them earlier than you can in the UK. You can check out census returns here at Ancestry.

US census’

The Us has a 72-year privacy rule so you can see the 1940 census and before. A good place to check them out is at the United States Census Bureau. Where the UK wanted people who were at the property the census night, the US 1940 census wanted people who usually lived there, making it easier to link a person to the right family. It also asked:

  • Name
  • Full address
  • Is the property owned or rented (O/R)
  • House value if owned or monthly rent
  • Does the household live on a farm (Yes/No)
  • Relationship to head of the house
  • Colour or race
  • Highest grade of school completed
  • If born in the US, state or territory
  • If born in Canada French or English
  • If born in Ireland, Northern Ireland or Eire
  • If foreign which country
  • Citizenship
  • Where living on 1st April 1935
  • A lot of information on the employment of over 14’s including income

The US started doing the census in 1790, although there will be different information on some of them. You should be able to get a few generations on paper from the US census. Quite often parents names as given.

Canadian census.’

The Canadian census is more difficult, but you can see them from 1825 to 1921 here. There are a lot of pages unreadable, and the originals have been destroyed, but you can get useful information when you find someone. Often parents’ names were included, and country of origin. They are definitely worth checking out. Ancestry can also help, just click here.

Australian census’

Australian census returns are a little confusing to find. However, you can do name searches at the archives to point you in the right direction.

Ancestry has a lot of information about the Australian census here, and you can get a free trial to check them out. They go back to 1828 but have New South Wales and Tasmania, Australia Convict Musters, 1806-1849 and New South Wales, Census and Population Books, 1811-1825 which could find you some information too.

New Zealand census.’

The New Zealand Census was not historically kept by the New Zealand Government.

Only a select few early regional and Māori census records have survived, for example:

  • Census of Māori and Moriori, 1864 [ABGP 7532 W4900 1]
  • Māori Census, 1901; 1906; 1911 [MA 23 13*18]
  • Māori Census, 1881 [MA 23 12*17]
  • Nelson census returns January 1845 [SSD 3 1*1]
  • Nelson census of 1849 [SSD 3 4*2 part 1]

You can, however, find electoral rolls. These do not have as much information as census’, but you can at least get some information. Go to the archives here to find more information. You can also for electoral rolls on Ancestry and FindmyPast.


Most counties did, and still do, census returns of some description, but not all the information collected was the same. Disclosure rules vary too, anything from 70 to 100 years. No matter how much or how little information you can find I suggest you use them. Ancestry and FindmyPast also have information, and I would check out which is the best for you before signing up for one as it is annoying to find out the other one would be more help after paying your subscription.


I am a genealogist with over 30 years experience. When I started my family tree I had to drive all over the country and site for hours in libraries and archives. Today it is much simpler as usually you can find the information on the web.

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