This page is a guide to searching the database and exploring your results. It begins with a brief description of what you will find in our Records section.
Select RECORDS from the main menu to see a listing of counties by census year with the number of records online for each. Then select Details to see which Pieces and/or Places are online for that county.
You can also see graphs of progress for each county and year by selecting Totals Graph or Percentage Graph.
Nature of the Search
The minimum information required for a search is a surname, or a forename together with a census county and place. However, this is very likely to produce too many results: the maximum number of records that can be shown is 500. If your search is giving too many results, you will need to narrow it down by giving more information and/or selecting a census year.
Surnames have been transcribed exactly as spelt in the census.
There might well be several (or many) variations of essentially the same surname in the database as there was no real standardisation of the way that names were spelt until well into the 1800s. Even then people made mistakes. Also, many people were illiterate, leaving the Enumerator to write what they heard, perhaps an unfamiliar name in an unfamiliar accent. So don't assume that your name was always spelt the same way that it is now. There will always be variations, even for the same person in different census returns. It is really a matter of getting used to, and allowing for, the possible variations of the name when searching.
To assist you in searching for surname variations, you can place a tick in the Soundex box. This option will find similar sounding names, as pronounced in English. Soundex is the most widely known of all phonetic algorithms — a set of rules to be followed in deciding which groups of letters might sound alike. It is important to remember that the Soundex algorithm assumes that the first letter of the name is correct. So, you might wish to consider additional searches for similar sounding surnames but using different first letters.
If using Soundex, enter the surname with the expected spelling. In particular, do not enter the Soundex Code itself.
Forenames have been transcribed as recorded by the Enumerator. Our search will find some variations and abbreviations of a forename automatically. You can also use the Soundex option to find misspelt variations on a name. In addition, a search for Elizabeth, say, will also find forenames that include Elizabeth, such as ‘Elizabeth Jane’ and ‘Mary Elizabeth’.
- Elizabeth will find also find ‘Elisabeth’ and ‘Eliz’
- William will also find ‘Wm’
- Alexander will also find ‘Alex’ and ‘Alexr’
To include misspelt versions of Elizabeth say, such as ‘Elesabeth’, or even related names such as ‘Elspet’, try the Soundex option.
Please remember that the Soundex option, if selected, applies to both the surname and the forename. (See Surname variations for more about how Soundex works.)
Census location & year
This section has four parts: County, Place, Year and Nearby places.
If you select one County, then the Places box will be filled and you may either select one Place to search, or none to search the whole county. You may also limit the search to a specific Census year.
Selecting All Counties is possible, but will only be effective when researching very uncommon names as too many results will be retrieved.
Selecting a specific county is likely to be more effective as an initial starting point for your research than adding a place and year if you find you are getting too many results.
Next to each Place name you will see a list of the years for which we have transcriptions for that place. If the year you want to search is not there, then you will not get any results when selecting the year.
For example, Rutland is the smallest county in England with four Places transcribed, as shown in the image below. A search for people in 1841 in Rutland cannot find any records, yet! But a search in 1861 will look in all four Places.
A Place is normally the location associated with the Registration Sub District used by the Census Enumerator; where this is unknown we use the location of the Registration District. With the transcriptions started in 2021 we use the location is associated with the Civil Parish which provides a more localized set of records.
A particularly effective research strategy is to use the Nearby places option in association with a specific starting place in a county. This conducts a search based on a specific place in the list of places and its closest 100 nearby places. Some of these places could well be in neighbouring counties. If this produces too many results then simply select the Narrow Search option and the search will be repeated but with half the number of neighbouring places. This narrowing can be done multiple times if necessary.
You can see which places have been included in a search by selecting ‘About this Search’. (Occasionally you might find a place in that list which does not belong near to your search or otherwise looks wrong — if you find one, please let us know by filling in a Contact form and choosing ‘Website Problem’. You will find the link in every footer. We will correct the coordinates for that place.)
You may search in up to three specific counties, in which case all Places in those counties will be included in the search (the Place box will be empty and the Nearby places option inactive).
As well as the expected counties, there are a number of special ‘counties’ that apply to census returns. Two of these apply to census location: from 1861, for those aboard a ship on a census night, either in a port or at sea, the returns were made to England and Wales Shipping or to Scottish Shipping. These additional ‘counties’ are at the end of the list.
The shipping returns are divided simply into military and commercial vessels, together with their crews. Military vessels include all the Royal Navy ships. The Merchant Navy includes everything else — from a fishing boat to a large cargo ship, from a small ferry to a large passenger liner.
You can narrow down a search by typing in the first and/or last birth year to be searched. You can also select a Birth County.
Bear in mind that for the 1841 census, ages of adults should have been rounded down to the nearest five, but that some enumerators ignored this. Also that officially the only choices for Birth County were the census county itself, another (unspecified) county in the same country, England, Scotland, Ireland or ‘Foreign’ (not a British Subject). We will have transcribed any additional information given, but this is a rare occurrence.
From 1851 onwards, we have transcribed overseas birth ‘counties’ as either Overseas British (part of what was then the British Empire) or Overseas Foreign. Any further details given will be part of our transcription.
Using the Search page
When you have entered the details of your search, it could seem slow before you get the results. Please be patient because at times our servers are very busy.
If you want to amend your search, for example if you did not find what you were looking for and want to just change the dates, then use the Revise Search button and your previously entered details will still be there. Do not use your browser's Back button.
Filters are a powerful feature that let you look more closely at the results of your search. Filters come into play after a successful search: they have no part in the initial search. If you do much with spreadsheets, you might be familiar with the idea.
The best way of using filters is to first run a search without any filters until you get a large enough ‘sample’ of results and then apply filters to those results. If you know that a previous search has generated a useful number of results then you can include the filters when entering that search in the future: that is, you do not need to go through the process of revising a search.
The individual filters are described next: please note that some of the filter information was collected only in later census years and so will not work on the earlier census years.
Sex: recorded for all census years.
Occupation: recorded in all census years, but often entered only for the ‘head’ of a household in 1841. The filter takes what you type in the box and matches it to any word in the occupation entry. Letter-case is ignored. The best way to use the filter is to type as few letters as possible. For example, try ‘bu’ if looking for a butcher or ‘fa’ for a farmer.
Disability: check the box to view all records with an entry in this column.
Marital Status: this was recorded from 1851 onwards.
Language. 1891 is currently the only year we can show. ‘Both’ means either English and Welsh (in Wales) or English and Gaelic (in Scotland).
An example using filters
Start by making a search, without any filters, that produces fewer than 500 results. Then filter those results.
The example here is for a search made early in 2020: the numbers will probably be different by now.
In this example, we searched for people named ALCOCK in the Yorkshire census (all years) and this gave 373 results: we then clicked on ‘Revise search’ and selected ‘Married’ for the ‘Marital Status’ filter which gave 135 results.
Next we selected ‘--’ in the ‘Marital status’ filter (to remove the filter) and typed ‘far’ in the Occupation filter: out of our initial 373 results, 30 had ‘far’ in the Occupation field. Revising the Occupation filter to ‘farmer’ gave only 21 people.
When we added a filter for ‘Male’ to the filter for ‘farmer’, we had 16 Male Farmers.
Finally, we went back to the basic search that gave us 373 results, and added ‘bu’ as an Occupation filter: we were down to one — and she was a Burler (someone who removes small knots or lumps in cloth or thread). None of the Yorkshire Alcock’s in the database were associated with butchery!
Exploring your results
Please use the buttons above the results to navigate as your browser Back button is likely to not work as expected.
Each column of your results table can be sorted by clicking on its heading.
Use the View button to see all the census information for the named person plus all the other members of the same household. Also included are the full census reference details.
As with the Results page, please use the buttons above the details to navigate. The Next Dwelling and Previous Dwelling buttons on the Details page allow you to view neighbouring households: these can be used repeatedly.
If you use the View button to see the details of a household, you will see a button near the top of the page labelled ‘Generate Citation’. Use this to auto-generate a citation in one of a number of popular formats for family historians and academics. If you spot an error in our format, or would like an additional format, please let us know.
If you want to cite a record which you have reached using the ‘Next Dwelling’ or ‘Previous Dwelling’ button, please be aware that the citation generator will give you a citation to the record which was found by the search, even if you move off to another dwelling’s record. So, you will need to do another search for the particular dwelling you want to cite.
Similarly, if you find, and wish to cite, a record relating to a particular individual, one that you found by looking for someone else, such as a parent or child, you will have to do another search for the particular individual, otherwise you will get the wrong name in the citation, and perhaps the wrong relationship to the head of household. Alternatively, you can amend the citation yourself to correct it: for example, change Charles Whitlow in the household of John Whitlow to Carlotta Whitlow.
For more formal details of how to cite records found on FreeCEN, please see About, Help with Citations which also discusses the nuances of citing a database.
Please remember that the FreeCEN database is just a finding tool. An entry should not be considered to be proof of enumeration, neither should it be regarded as necessarily 100% accurate. We do our best, but images might be damaged (even missing) or otherwise difficult to interpret.