Accessing British Isles Census Records on Microfilm

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This article originally appeared in Finding Answers in British Isles Census Records by Echo King, AG.


Even with the many advantages of digital indexes, and digital copies of the images, there may be times where an alternate source may be a better option. Copies of the census in multiple formats are available at the Family Records Centre (FRC) in London, the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) in Edinburgh, and the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, as well as at many county record offices, family history centers, and other facilities throughout the world. Each facility may have a different cataloging system, which you need to learn to use, but ultimately all of the census records are organized according to their “home” archive. The home archive for returns from England and Wales is The National Archives (TNA), and for Scotland returns it is the GROS. In this chapter we will discuss the TNA reference system, the finding aids at the Family Records Centre, the GROS reference system, and the catalogue used at the Family History Library.

As discussed in Working with British Isles Census Records Online, start your census search by identifying who you want to find, whether an individual or a family group. Then you can locate any available finding aids to facilitate identifying the correct record on microfilm or microfiche.

Each archive, library, or county record office has its own set of finding aids, and you will have to determine what is available. Two of the most common and useful finding aids are street indexes and surname indexes. Many of the published finding aids for the British censuses were created in England or Scotland and therefore use the reference numbering system for the TNA, the GROS, or the local archive.

Find the reference number to locate the correct film using the catalog or finding aids available at the library you are using. Knowing the library or archive reference number often cuts steps out of the process at whichever library you visit. Obtaining as much of this information as possible before leaving home, by using Internet resources or a library more local than the one you wish to visit, will save valuable time at the library for actual research.

Street Indexes

When searching in a large community, a street index can help you narrow down the area of town in which to focus the search. Street indexes list streets, terraces, lanes, and sometimes villages and hamlets in alphabetical order for a certain area, usually a registration district. Next to each street is listed the piece number and folio number, or range of folio numbers, of where the street appears in the census. Family history societies have published indexes for most cities with a population greater than 40,000.

Street Index, 1861 Census [England and Wales].

In large cities, a street may cross multiple registration districts, and you need to check in all of them so that you do not miss part of the street. London, for example, is divided into about thirty-six registration districts. To locate streets in London, use a guide that shows which registration district a particular street is in, such as Names of Streets and Places within the Metropolitan Area published by the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1887. Maps can also be helpful.

Surname Indexes

One of the finding aids a researcher always hopes to find is a surname index. To use a surname index effectively you need to know the general location where your ancestors were living and of course their surname, including spelling variations. A surname index lists all of the surnames of the individuals within a certain area and the piece and folio numbers on which individuals with that surname appear. This reference number will allow you to go straight to the microfilm containing the census returns.

Some indexes also include the given (first) names of individuals. However, if given names are not listed and the surname is common, you may have to view several census returns before you find the correct entry. This is still easier than plowing through an entire city to locate someone. Family history societies have compiled most existing surname indexes and published them as booklets or, more recently, on CDs.

You will need to check what is available, although most societies indexed their county for the 1851 census. Recently, national indexes for all census years have been made available on the Internet.

In general, surname and street indexes can be located using Gibson’s Marriage, Census, and Other Indexes for Family Historians. The indexes are available as booklets or in some cases as CDs. You can also check with the family history society that has interest in the county you are researching. The society may have copies of these indexes for use or for sale. The Federation of Family History Societies website is located here and the Scottish Association of Family History Societies is found here.

Once you have decided which year and place you are going to view, determine whether a surname or street index exists. Prior to censuses’ availability on the Internet, when finding aids did not exist, researchers had to view the census by place and page-by-page. You may still have to view a census page-by-page when an index is inaccurate, but it is not as common a task.

Finding Aids at the Family Records Centre

To find census records in England or Wales at the Family Records Centre (FRC), first determine whether there is a street or surname index for the place and census year you wish to search. If you are at the Family Records Centre, you can consult the reference book Index to Surname Indexes (By Place). This book contains an alphabetical list of places for which the FRC has a surname index.

Index to Place Names, 1871, England, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man.

If a street or surname index is not available, or you do not know in which registration district to find a place of interest, start your search with the place-name index. This is an alphabetical list of most places in each census year. The place-name index does not include every populated place in the country. You may need to consult a gazetteer or map if you do not find the specific place you are looking for. Once you locate the place of interest, the place-name index shows the corresponding county, registration district, registration district number, sub-district number, and indicates whether a street or surname index exists at the FRC.

After looking at the place-name index, take the registration district name and number from the place-name index and turn to the series list that corresponds to that year. The series list is a list of places ordered by registration district number. Locate the district by number, and you will see what piece number includes that district, as well as a list of sub-districts, civil parishes, and towns. The order in which places appear in the series list shows what order these places will most likely appear on the film. (The place-name index for 1841 gives the page number to look up in the series list.)

1871 Series List (Class List of all 1871 Census Returns).

The 1871 census place-name index shows that the parish of Darton is in district 505. The 1871 census series list shows that Registration District 505 is the district of Barnsley; includes Cudworth, Carlton, Darton, Notton, Roystone, and Woolley; and is part of piece 4643 in the 1871 census.

The series list also indicates if a parish is in more than one district or piece. Comments will indicate if a piece is missing or damaged in the original. Finally, certain numeric codes in the list can let you know if there are any unusual returns in that piece (in the attached image, the “(4)” appearing in the line for piece 4644 indicates that the returns for a hospital are included in that piece). These codes are as follows:

  1. Barrack and military quarters
  2. HM ships at home
  3. Workhouses (including pauper schools)
  4. Hospitals (sick, convalescent, incurable)
  5. Lunatic asylums (pubic and private)
  6. Prisons
  7. Certified reformatories and industrial schools
  8. Merchant vessels
  9. Schools

The series lists are available as books at the FRC, but you can also get the same information when you use The National Archives Online Catalogue. You will save time at the library if you can use this catalogue to complete some of these preliminary steps from home.

To search The National Archives Online Catalogue for a place name:

  1. Click “Search the Catalogue” at the top left of the screen to bring up a search template.
  2. Enter the place name of interest in the field labeled “Word or phrase.” Narrow down the search by entering in the “Department or Series Code” field the class number for the census you want to search (HO for 1841 and 1851; RG for 1861–1901).
  3. Click “Search.”

The results of the keywords you searched for will be returned. All the reference information that you need is on this screen. For more details, view the catalog entry for that parish by clicking the item that most closely matches the information you are seeking.

As with the printed series list, comments indicate if the piece is damaged or missing (a list of missing and damage pieces is included in List of Missing British Isles Census Returns). In some cases, you will find a single parish listed in multiple counties. If you do not find what you are looking for in the original parish you were searching, you can try searching in nearby parishes listed in the series list.

Remember not to limit yourself by geographic boundaries. Do not disregard a location possibility just because it is in a different county than expected. Remember that census registration districts frequently overlapped county boundaries.

The National Archives Reference System

Each page of the census for England and Wales can be located easily using a unique reference number. TNA reference numbers are made of three main components. For example, a typical reference number may appear as RG12\436, f.82. The first part of the reference number, RG12, is the class number. When the census records were deposited at The National Archives, the records for each year were assigned a class code indicating the record group and the series number. The returns for the 1841 and 1851 censuses both fall in record group HO (Home Office). All of the other census years are filed in record group RG (Registrar General). The reference numbers for each census year are:

  • 1841—HO 107 (pieces 1–1465)
  • 1851—HO 107 (pieces 1466–2531)
  • 1861—RG9
  • 1871—RG10
  • 1881—RG11
  • 1891—RG12
  • 1901—RG13

The second part of the reference number, in this example 436, is the piece number. Piece numbers were assigned by geography, starting in the south and winding northward through the country. The counties of England are first, followed by the counties of Wales. In 1841 the census returns for England and Wales are arranged alphabetically by county and then by parish.

The third and final part of the reference number is a folio number. Together, these three pieces of information provide unique information that identifies a specific set of pages in the census. Finding aids and catalogs will help you determine the reference number that you need to guide you to the census page you want to view. In 1841, the reference number will also include a book number.

Using Census Records at the General Register Office for Scotland

When using the Scottish census you will use the same basic approached outlined above. Start by identifying the name and number for the parish of interest. Find out what census indexes exist using Peter Ruthven-Murray’s Scottish Census Indexes: Covering the 1841–1871 Civil Censuses.

Even if an index does not exist, you can still locate the film that you need. The Scottish census is arranged alphabetically by county and then by parish for 1841–1871. In 1881 and 1891, the parishes are arranged strictly by parish number.

The General Register Office for Scotland Reference System

John Brown, a groom in the Balmoral Stables in 1861 (183/1/24/1861).

The GROS citation format includes registration or parish number, enumeration district number, entry number, and census year. For example, a reference might be given as 183/1/24/1861. This indicates that the person or family is found in the 1861 returns, in parish 183, enumeration district 1, and line 24. In 1851, the reference number does not include the parish number, so for this year only you need to also include the parish name. If the citation refers to a library or archive other then GROS, include the film number from that library.

Using Census Records at the Family History Library

Copies of the series list for England and Wales described above are also available at the Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City. While obtaining the TNA or GROS reference number is helpful, you will still need to find the film number that is used at the FHL. To find a film number at the Family History Library, or at a local family history center, use the Family History Library Catalog. This is available on microfiche, on CD, or online at FamilySearch.

To use the catalog online go to Click the “Library” tab. On the new page, click “Family History Library Catalog” at the top of the screen.

To search for a place name:

  1. Click the “Place” button to bring up a search template.
  2. Enter the place name you are looking for.
  3. If more than one place with that name is returned, choose the correct place.
  4. Click the Search button to get a list of topics.
  5. Choose the topic of “Census” and the year, if it is listed. If a surname or street index exists, it is listed under the topic “Census-Index.”
  6. Click the “View film notes” button to see a list of film numbers for the various census years for that place.
  7. Choose the film to view and make notation of the reference number.

One roll of microfilm can include several places. The description of each film includes the piece number, or parish number in Scotland, so that you can more easily find your spot on the film. In England and Wales, if a piece number is not indicated it means that you will need to inspect the entire film. Write down the film number and any other numbers, for future reference. The film number is also the information you need to order film into your local family history center.

Another quick reference tool at the Family History Library is a book commonly referred to as The Census Register. The full title of this resource for England and Wales is the Index of Place Names Showing the Library Microfilm Numbers for the 1841–1891 Census of England, Wales, Isle of Man, and Channel Islands. Find the place name in the alphabetical list. The columns to the right of the place name list the Family History Library call numbers for the 1841 through 1891 census microfilms that include the piece or parish for that location.

The full title of the Census Register for Scotland is the Index to Parishes or Districts in the Census of Scotland for the years 1841–1891. The register is organized alphabetically by county and then by parish. Find the place name you are looking for, and the parish number and Family History Library call number for the film will be listed next to the place name.

From Reference to Film

Once you have determined the correct microfilm using one of the methods previously described, load the film on a microfilm reader. To find your place on the film, first locate the correct piece or parish number.

This filming strip shows that the census page is in HO 107 piece 2128.

There may be multiple pieces, in sequential order, on one film. A slip of paper placed at the bottom or to the side of each census return has either the TNA or GROS reference number printed on it; this will help you locate the piece, parish, or other place of interest on the film.

For England and Wales, if you used a finding aid such as a street index or a surname index, you should also have a folio number to look up. Folio numbering starts over with each new piece and then runs sequentially through each piece. A folio is defined as a two-sided piece of paper, where each side counts as one page. In the census, the folio number appears on every other page as a rubber-stamped number. This number is usually in the upper right hand corner of the piece of paper and appears on the first of the two sides/pages. Folio numbers were added before filming the manuscripts. Because a folio refers to two sides of a piece of paper, the person you are looking for could be on either side.

Title page in 1841 showing book number (HO 107\856, b.1, f.1).

The reference system for the 1841 census is a little different than the one used in other census years. In 1841, each piece is divided into books and the folio numbers are numbered sequentially within each book. As a result, folio numbers repeat within each piece and cannot be used as a unique reference number. The book number is handwritten, and it appears on the first instructional page of each book. The number appears as a fraction where the piece number is written above a line and the book number underneath. For example, in the attached image, the book is book number one of piece 856. In some of the microfilmed copies, the book appears as part of the reference number on the filming strip.

If you do not have a folio number, you will need to read each page of each piece in the census to find who you are looking for. You can narrow your search by locating the most likely place of residence. Remember that towns will appear in roughly the order they appeared in the series list. Each piece is divided into enumeration districts. At the beginning of each Census Enumerator’s Book, there are several pages of instructional and descriptive material. Read the page that describes the area covered in the enumeration district, usually the first or second page, to determine if the enumeration district is of interest to you. Parishes can span multiple enumeration districts. You may need to look at each page within several enumeration districts to locate the person you are looking for. If you do not find the person you are seeking in the expected parish, expand your search to nearby towns and parishes.

Vessel, institution, and military returns use the same system of reference numbers. One difference is that descriptions of vessels often follow the personal information for passengers. The series list or TNA catalog can help you locate those institutions within the place of interest.

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