The aim of FreeCEN is to provide free internet searches of the 19th century UK census returns. The first UK census to include names and other details of UK residents took place in 1841. Since then, a census has been held every ten years.
The FreeCEN project was begun in July, 1999, with a pilot transcription for Devon, coordinated by Brian Randell. Since then, the project has moved on, outgrowing its original database and website: we are now based on this site and have plans to improve the database and the ways you can search it.
Why is FreeCEN changing?
Firstly, a growing number of our users are accessing the web through phones and tablets, rather than laptops and larger computers — they expect an interface that looks good and works well on a small screen. We think we are
almost there on this.
Secondly, we want to make the website more accessible. This work is just beginning.
- Place: The boundaries used by the census are not easy to visualise, often cross historic boundaries (e.g. including parts of two counties) and change name and shape - so even if you know the village or part of a town your ancestor might have resided in, choosing which census district to filter by is not easy, particularly for those unfamiliar with the geography of the 19th century.
- The names used by people to record their place of birth are faithfully transcribed. This could also make searching difficult — the person supplying the information might have known that their home village was in one county when they were born, and another at the time of the census, and chosen either. So we are looking into more choice for how you search, including a map-based search.
- Too much choice: it can be difficult to know which of the many fields you should fill in, in order to be able to identify the person you are seeking, but not rule them out due to something not being recorded quite as you might have expected (we are looking into Artificial Intelligence to solve this one for you).
We also want to improve the quality of the data we transcribe — in the past, we have had to use abbreviations and compress two fields into one, in order to keep within the database restrictions of 20 years ago. We are moving towards a more flexible system which will allow transcribers to record each piece of information in an appropriate field.
You do not need to be a Member to search our database. However, to make FreeCEN an effective tool we are in urgent need of volunteers willing to undertake the transcription of census pieces or make available transcriptions that they have already completed.
We provide an Internet-based search for census entries for a named person.
For copyright reasons, we cannot allow you to browse all the transcriptions from a census piece. You can ask us specific questions through the Contact form. For other use of such complete transcriptions, where these exist, you should contact either the appropriate local County Record Offices or the relevant Family History Society.
FreeCEN is a part of the Free UK Genealogy Charity CIO and a companion to FreeBMD — a database of the General Register Office (GRO) birth, marriage and death indexes from 1837 — and FreeREG — a database of baptism, marriage and burial entries in church registers (some from 1538) and other relevant sources.