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Guide to UK census records

Everything you need to know about UK census records

Picture of Niall Cullen - Senior Content Strategist
Niall Cullen
14 June 2021

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 UK's National Archives and are also available as online records at Findmypast.

Search UK census records

This handy guide explains the history behind UK 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 official meaning of a census from the Oxford Dictionary says it's;

"the process of officially counting something, especially a country’s population, and recording various facts."

Taking a census usually involves all householders completing census forms that list information about their lives and their family on a specific day periodically. A census taker or enumerator delivers and collects the household forms in their assigned area.

Why are censuses important?

The recorded population data is used by governments for planning things like healthcare, education and employment services at a national, regional and local level. From a genealogy perspective, historical census records are invaluable snapshots of your relatives at a given point in time.

How often is the census?

In the UK, censuses have been taken on a given census day 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 affecting 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 unfortunate records gap is by using the 1939 Register as a census substitute.

When is the next England & Wales census?

The next England & Wales census is scheduled to take place in 2031, a decade on from the most recent one on March 21, 2021. Statisticians have predicted that the 2021 Census could be the last of its kind as cheaper alternatives for gathering data are explored. The 2021 Scotland census has been postponed until 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Completing the census is your chance to leave your mark and help shape the future. Just imagine, generations from now, your descendants might be checking it to find out more about you.

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. Only fragments like 1801 Kent, Dartford Census include details useful for tracing family history.

1811 Census

Taken on 27 May 1811, only summary counts of households were collected so it’s not very useful from a genealogical perspective.

1821 Census

Like those before it, only counts were taken for this census which took place on 28 May that year. You’ll find some exceptions that do include householder details for areas like Kent, Westminster, and Orkney.

1831 Census

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

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

1841 census page

1841 census return from Lambeth.

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

  • Names
  • Ages
  • Genders
  • Addresses
  • Birthplaces

The 1851 census took place on March 30 that year.

1851 census page

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

1861 census page

1861 census return from Manchester.

On Findmypast, as well as searching census records for a person, you can also search British censuses by address.

This is perfect for tracing who used to live at an address or how a local area has changed over time.

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

1871 census page

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.

1881 census page.

1881 census return from Cardiff.

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

Once the 1881 Census was fully compiled, officials noted that there was an alarming rise in the number of individuals being reported as "deaf and dumb", compared to previous census returns. After inquiries were made, it transpired that many enumerators had recorded babies as being deaf and dumb simply because they could not speak.

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

1891 census page.

1891 census return from Newcastle.

In Wales, the 1891 Census included an extra question on the language spoken.

This census took place on April 5, 1891.

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

1901 census page

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 April 2 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.

1911 census page

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.

There are some known missing pages from UK census records. You can see the full list here.

When will British 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.

For the first time, the 1921 Census requested employer information.

UK censuses after 1921

The 1931 Census took place on April 26 in England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland was recorded as part of the 1926 Irish Census so wasn't included in the 1931 UK Census. Along with the information requested in 1921, the 1931 Census asked respondents about their usual place of residence. While the records for England and Wales were destroyed by fire, the 1931 Census for Scotland survives.

The next UK census was on April 8, 1951 with the records due to be released in 2052. It included questions on household amenities for the first time.

The UK census has continued every decade since the 1950s. Along the way, more and more questions were asked reflecting changes in British society. Technology was also introduced to make the process more efficient. In 1966, an additional census was taken trialing new methods of enumeration. The first question about religion appeared in 2001, while specific questions on civil partnerships first featured in 2011.

Without historical censuses, our journeys into the past would lack a lot of richness. What have you discovered with census records? Reach out to us on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to share your stories.