Break the Brick Walls: Censuses

Break the Brick Walls: Censuses

In the first of a series of quick tips for finding more elusive ancestors, Jenny Jones looks at the censuses.

Jenny Jones, Retired nurse with over 30 years of experience in family history

Jenny Jones

Retired nurse with over 30 years of experience in family history

Frustratingly, we often encounter problems when searching for ancestors in census returns. The family cannot be found at the expected location, or there are too many possible candidates of the same name to be sure you have the correct family.

When the family is not found at the expected location:

  • Check all known information including the last address given in BMD or burial records. Has this information been accurately transcribed online?
  • Use more than one data website – the information can differ.
  • Use trade directories or electoral registers at record offices.
  • Try to locate the family in earlier and later censuses. Have they moved around between censuses? Perhaps the children have been born in various places – did the head of household have an itinerant occupation?
  • Search institutions, e.g. hospitals, workhouses, prisons, asylums in surrounding counties as well as the expected one.
  • If in one census and not subsequent ones, consider death records, remarriage of a spouse, emigration, and even transportations.
  • Always be aware of errors and omissions in transcription.
  • Search at a record office if possible – some may have surname indexes or extra information not available on internet sites.
  • When using the data sites, use variant spellings for forename and surname – even try forename only or wildcards for surname.
  • If still not found, broaden the search to include surrounding parishes, even adjacent counties, as county borders frequently changed.
  • Use children’s names to try to locate the family – a child’s unusual first name can often lead to results.
  • Try finding siblings, too: this might reveal more family members.

Where there is more than one possibility:

  • Go back to basics – check all known information, eliminating all but the strongest possibilities.
  • Try to find each possible family in other censuses, baptism and burial records or BMD certificates, in order to eliminate them.

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