England and Wales:- Census


In the lists below PTV (Pay To View) is used generally to indicate sites that charge (either per view or by subscription) for images of the original documents or for full transcripts. These sites may provide basic details via free indexes.

There has been a census every ten years since 1801, excluding 1941. However, only those that date from 1841 are of real value to the family historian. The administration of the early census returns 1801-1831 was the responsibility of the Overseers of the Poor and the clergy.

Most of these early returns were unfortunately destroyed, although in some isolated instances they have been preserved. Note though that the surviving (pre-1841) lists are often little more than head counts. The census returns for 1841 were the first to be gathered under the aupices of the newly formed General Register Office and the first to be kept for posterity. In general, the information is released to the public after a hundred years. For example, the public will get access to the 1921 census returns in January 2022.

The 1841 census was different from the previous censuses in two important respects. Firstly, the administration passed into the hands of the Registrar General and the Superintendant Registrars, who were responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths. Many recent reforms, including the 1836 General Registration Act, which had culminated in the introduction of civil registration had resulted in a new layer of central and local government.

When the 1841 census was being prepared, it was seen as a logical step that it should also supervise the census. Consequently, civil registration and census taking became inter-related; any change in local boundaries or districts affected them both.

Secondly, the emphasis changed from questions concerned with population size, and the numbers engaged in certain occupations and the condition of the housing stock, to a much more detailed analysis of individuals and families, and the communities in which they lived.

The information recorded on individuals has tended to increase with each census. The information collected in each census is detailed on (internet archive copy) this GenDocs page.

Guy Etchells has assembled a collection of the official instructions given to enumerators for each census.

In 1851, in addition to the census of population a census was taken of places of worship. Although this was purely voluntary, most places of Worship made returns. This Ecclesiastical Census of 1851 is described by The National Archives in Discovery and the returns have been made available (free online) as part of the Digital Microfilm Project.

The census was taken on the following dates:

10 Mar   1801   No longer exists, with a few exceptions
27 May   1811   No longer exists, with a few exceptions
28 May   1821   No longer exists, with a few exceptions
30 May   1831   No longer exists, with a few exceptions
6 June   1841   Now available to the public, details below
30 March   1851   Now available to the public, details below
7 April   1861   Now available to the public, details below
2 April   1871   Now available to the public, details below
3 April   1881   Now available to the public, details below
5 April   1891   Now available to the public, details below
31 March   1901   Now available to the public, details below
2 April   1911   Now available to the public, details below
19 June   1921   Expected to be released by TNA in January 2022, see link below
26 April   1931   Destroyed during WW2
29 September   1939  

(WW2 National Registration) Now available to the public, details below

8 April   1951    
23 April   1961    
25 April   1971    
5 April   1981    
21 April   1991    
29 April   2001    

Census returns are held at:

  • The National Archives
    • For England and Wales only
  • District Libraries, County Record Offices and FHS research rooms
    • normally have copies of the returns for their own area
  • LDS
    • have copies of the census microfilms. These usually need to be ordered unless you are visiting a branch of the LDS in the same area as the returns in which you are interested.

It is advisable before making a trip to a library or record office, to check the exact whereabouts of specific census returns in order to avoid a wasted visit. Also some libraries may have a limited number of viewers and a booking may be necessary.


A few of these returns, in various level of detail, still exist.

1841 (6 June)

1851 (30 March)

  • Many local indexes exist - see GENUKI county pages or those of the appropriate FHS
  • Note that a number of parishes are misssing from the 1851 census - see this FindMyPast page.
  • There is a web site dedicated to theunfilmed Manchester census - http://www.1851-unfilmed.org.uk
  • A case study on (internet archive copy) The Incompleteness of the 1851 Census Returns is available from GenDocs.
  • PTV: national index & page images are available via this page from The National Archives (links to Ancestry)
  • PTV: indexes, transcripts, images for some counties are available from TheGenealogist
  • 1851 Census - 2% Sample. An ESRC-sponsored research project led by Professor Michael Anderson at Edinburgh University transcribed a 2% sample of English and Welsh census records some years ago. Through a misunderstanding, they were placed on GENUKI for a short while in 1995, but immediately withdrawn when we were informed that Professor Anderson and the ESRC had not given, and would not give, permission for the results of his project to be made freely available. The fact that the original census records can now be freely copied, thanks to the changed TNA rules does not alter the fact that Professor Anderson and the ESRC have a right to refuse to allow their transcriptions to be copied. Unfortunately there are still web-site owners who disregard the owner's wishes and continue to make copies of the original 2% sample files available on-line. We strongly recommend the alternative legal copies of these files that can now be purchased on CD-ROM, for example from S&N Genealogy Supplies. These have been augmented from other sources and more fully validated, and are accompanied by some excellent search facilities.

1861 (7 April)

1871 (2 April)

1881 (3 April)

1891 (5 April)

1901 (31 March)

1911 (2 April)

1921 (19 June)

1939 (29 September) WW2 National Registration



Further Reading

  • Census The Expert Guide,Peter Christian & David Annal, 2008, The National Archives.
  • Census The Family Historian's Guide, Peter Christian & David Annal, 2014, Bloomsbury Press. (See http://www.spub.co.uk/census/)
  • An introduction to the Census Returns of England & Wales, Sue Lumas, 1992, FFHS.
  • Marriage, Census and other indexes for Family Historians (4th ed 1992) J Gibson & E Hampson.
  • Census Indexes in the Library of Society of Genealogists, J E Kenyon, Society of Genealogists
  • Making Sense of the Census: The Manuscript Returns for England and Wales, 1801 - 1901, Edward Higgs, PRO Handbook No. 23 (HMSO, London, 1989)