Using Data from Censuses to Trace your Family Tree

Census RecordsThe Censuses provide a great deal of data when trying to put together a family tree. Any given Census provides basic and also some additional details. However the basic details are the most important as it is these that are used to trace or build a family tree. The basic details include names, addresses, age, occupation and whether the person was born in that country or not. The Census can be accessed online as it is part of the public records. The national index for the Census from 1881 is available on microfiche allowing easy and quick access. The original documents, going back as far as 1801, informing the Census can also be sourced and copies obtained for a few pounds. The Census information can be analysed to put together family groups which form the branches of the family tree.

The Censuses were first taken in 1801 and from then on, every 10 years during one of the spring months from March to July. The first few are not as reliable as later censuses as there is less information available as there were no first names recorded until after 1841. Incidentally in 1841 there was no Census taken so there is a large gap of missing information here. After 1841, however the Census has a wider range of information including health records. It was certainly not particularly flattering as many of the health problems were mental problems listed as 'imbecile' or 'idiot' and obvious handicaps such as 'mute' and 'deaf'. Reading up on these health issues listed might indicate the end of an ancestral branch as some of the health problems would imply the improbability of having children.

From 1851 additional information included the relationship of each person to the head of the household, their marital status and their actual age. Prior to this Census the ages were often rounded to the nearest 5 years. There was also information giving the address and country of birth. This information could lead to the discovery of another family branch leading to an international family tree. It is important to note when looking at family surnames that some spellings may differ during earlier times. It can help to apply a phonetic spelling of some names and look up these on the Census. This can also lead to finding ancestors to add to the family tree. However the address was sometimes suspect as the address recorded was wherever the person happened to be staying on that particular day. If people were travelling then their actual address might not have been recorded. Others had no fixed address or may have been more easily overlooked when the Census was taken particularly if they were in an orphanage, poorhouse or workhouse during Victorian times. It is best to cross reference these records with the information from the Census if it appears part of the family history or an ancestor may be missing.

It is also important to note that the Census itself is not merely subject to a few inaccuracies due to human error and the way it was organised. It is also subject to legislative constrictions. It is not possible to look at the Census beyond 1901 until 2009 when the 1911 Census will become available. However, the information that can be gleaned can be built upon and added to. The Census provides vital information when giving the address and country of birth. It is easy to pinpoint the exact house and location of family members in small villages from this by cross referencing on an ordnance survey map. The addresses from the Census can trace more ancestors as secondary local sources can be accessed once you have the address from the national database. You can source information on additional relatives from Parish records (once you know which Parish to contact), local newspapers, wills and deeds. In small villages it is quite easy to track a local family and its various branches to add to your own family tree. It is more difficult to track in larger towns as you may have to contact a few local parishes. If you can't find information about your family branch from the very useful address- particularly if their place of dwelling is between census years, then you can look for a child's birth that may be recorded during one of the Census years and trace this particular line of ancestry in this way.

The Census is a key source of information when trying to trace your family tree. However, it is important to be aware that there are some errors or problems (as mentioned above) to be aware of when using this tool. Other sources of information should also be used to verify or contest records.

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