In the second part of this series on using genealogical records for research we’ll look at census returns. The first modern census in the United Kingdom was taken on 7 June 1841. An enumerator delivered a schedule which the household completed, with the enumerator helping those who were illiterate. Each person living at the address that night had to state their age, gender, county of birth, and occupation. The enumerator then copied this into a book. Online transcriptions are taken from this book. Be aware that search engines only search the transcriptions but most give an option to view the original scan.
Subsequent censuses occurred every decade. Legally they cannot be published for 100 years so the most recent available is 1911. Gradually they built on the amount of information requested. 1851 required people to specify their place of birth, marital status and relationship to head with a column to indicate if they were deaf, blind or an imbecile. 1891 asked for the number of rooms in a house and, in Wales, if the person spoke Welsh. 1911 asked for nationality, how long the person had been married, how many children had been born in the marriage and how many were still living.
The value of the census returns is that they allow you to track an individual or a family over a period of time. This is not always easy, as the information may have been incorrectly stated or entered. The spelling of names varies, ages are often inaccurate, and the birthplace can differ. When this happens, you need to weigh up the totality of the evidence and cross-reference against other sources.