How to spot a suffragette in the family

Professional genealogist Gill Thomas on how to get the best out of a Census

Gill Thomas is a professional genealogist who has worked on events such as the Who Do You Think You Are? exhibition, helping the public with queries about how to trace their family history. Like the rest of the world, she’s taken her activities online and offers interactive sessions about how to do family research. In her first blog, here, she suggests how to get started on family history. In her second blog she explains how to get the best out of a Census.

Welcome to #Blog 2. Thanks for all the feedback – keep sending me all those questions and ideas. I do hope that you have begun to make positive progress with your research. As billed, I’ve been thinking about tips to give you when interpreting Census records.

The Census 1841-1911

Census returns are the bedrock of ancestral research. You can piece together the approximate birthdate of individual family members from the age recorded.

Top tip! The records were usually taken in April of the year, so deduct a year from the age when working out the birthdate. Also remember to keep a note of the information in the transcription – Piece, Folio and Page numbers. It will help you to remember where you found the record and to share with others.

The Censuses recorded in England, Wales and Scotland are largely in the same format. The most recent Census available to see online is that recorded in 1911. Instead of using an enumerator, households were for the first time encouraged to complete the form themselves.

Image above: Suffragette Census, 1911

Top tip ! Note the signature by the address, as it is likely the signature of your ancestor, not an enumerator. Information recorded also included whether the individual was a worker or business-owner. Women were asked how many children they had borne also including the number alive or dead. The years that a couple had been married are also noted. The number of rooms in the home were also included. In Wales and Scotland, returns showed whether people were bi-lingual or monoglot. If you are lucky, you may even spot a return where information is incomplete or spoiled, usually indicating the actions of a suffragette!

From 1911 backwards a Census was recorded every 10 years. The amount of information for each differs slightly with a diminishing level of detail, but once you’ve grasped how to interpret the returns it should be plain sailing apart from the 1841 Census. Try to find at least three bits of information about the household in each that match, such as places of birth, names of children as well as ages. If you have seafaring ancestors, ‘Vessels’ is the district to search for them.

Although there had been earlier surveys, the Census listing individuals commenced in 1841. Standards of record-taking varied, and crucially the relationships between household members were not listed, nor the precise place of birth. Most importantly, the age of adults were rounded up or down to the nearest five, whereas the those of children tended to be more akin to their actual age.

In many cases you will find abbreviations for occupations – for example, FS might stand for Farm Servant or DS Domestic Servant. Talking of occupations, it is likely that you may come across an occupation which is unfamiliar. For example, I recently researched the history of a family, many of whom worked as Orris Weavers. (Orris weavers worked with silk, silver and gold making elaborate braid and embroidery which was added to usually men’s clothing. This skilled craft had died out by the 1850’s).

Top tip! Best resource for old occupations can be found at Hall Genealogy – Old Occupation Names

Why only to 1911?

You may at this point be wondering why I haven’t talked about Census returns made after 1911. The next release for the 1921 Census is scheduled to go live in 2022. In the meantime, the 1939 UK Register, taken for the purposes of establishing rationing needs during World War 2, has already been released which includes the dates of birth of household members, although the details of any children potentially still alive have been redacted.

The Census I am looking for doesn’t appear to be online

The bad news is that there are some gaps in the datasets online, and there are differences between what’s available on Ancestry and Find My Past. Many local Family History Societies have further records available, so it’s worth checking their publication lists, but you may need to accept defeat in a sequence as some have been lost to posterity.

Scottish and Irish Census returns

Find My Past and Ancestry have Scottish Census information in their records collections but in both cases you will only be able to view transcriptions of the records, not the forms themselves. Scotland’s People holds the digitised version of Scottish Census returns, and payment for these can be made buying credits online.

If you are looking for Irish records, unfortunately owing to the combination of the actions of the British Army during World War 1 who cleared the archives of the records to make space, combined with a fire during the Civil War, the only surviving Census returns are for the years 1901 and 1911, but both can be accessed online at

Other types of research using Census returns

One request I’ve received since starting this blog is for help with researching house histories. The Census is an excellent starting point for building a picture of the inhabitants of your very own Acacia Avenue. Census records can be searched by address as well as by an individual’s name. Search by Census datasets, drilling down through County, Town and District instead of the more usual process of name, date of birth etc. Simply leave the name boxes blank but put in the address. You will be prompted to provide information with regards to county, area and enumeration district.

Top tip! If you are researching a Chiswick address, don’t forget that Chiswick was in Middlesex.

Hot News for researchers this week, is that the National Archives have lifted the £3.50 download charge usually levied for digitised items such as Wills, whilst they are closed. Simply register on their site and put the download into your basket and receive the pdf free of charge. See

Next time – Births, Marriages and Deaths. Keep sending those questions in!

Gill Thomas of Who What Where Research

Gill is a professional Genealogist and Member of the Association of Genealogists and Researchers in Archives (AGRA). She also lectures at the Society of Genealogists. If you don’t feel like starting a research project yourself or are looking for a gift for a special occasion, she is also available to take commissions including house histories.