Availability of British Isles Census Records

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


After an army of clerks tallied every last detail and reports were sent off to various parties, the original Census Enumerators’ Books were placed in storage. When the census records first started to become available to the public, they were only accessible in original form at the archives. This situation meant that only a limited number of people had access to the documents and that those originals were at risk of being damaged or lost through the constant handling.

As technology improved, archivists made an effort to further protect and preserve the original records. In the mid-twentieth century, the original census returns were microfilmed and distribution of these copies made the census more accessible than ever before. In recent years, advances in technology have it made it possible to create digital reproductions that can be viewed anywhere in the world using the Internet.

Today, census records, indexes, and images are available at many locations both online and off. Many people will prefer the instant success often offered in online indexes. Online indexes are typically the easiest to access and use. However, some people will find microfilm census records available offline more convenient and enjoyable. (Search strategies for both searching methods will be discussed in the next two chapters.) No matter which method of searching you prefer, the lists below include some of the most popular and accessible access points.

Online Access

Many groups have indexed and placed online various parts of the seven publicly available censuses (part- and whole-year indexes). Some groups offer these indexes for a fee, and some groups offer them for free. The sites mentioned below are a few of the most popular Internet sites used for accessing the census online.


Ancestry.com is currently the only place online to find national indexes and images for the 1841 through 1901 censuses for England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man. All of the indexes are linked to digital images of the original censuses scanned from microfilm. With all of the indexes in one place, you could potentially search all of the censuses in a single search. National indexes for the 1841 through 1901 censuses of Scotland are also available, but without corresponding images.

To use the index and images at Ancestry.com, visit Ancestry.com or sister site Ancestry.co.uk, which provides a localized pricing system for individuals residing in the United Kingdom. While you can search the indexes for free, you need a subscription in order to see the full index and the images.


The Origins Network is comprised of several different sites. The [www.britishorigins.com BritishOrigins site] has partial indexes for 1841 and 1871 for England, Wales, the Channels Islands, and the Isle of Man. Images are available. You can purchase access for various lengths of time.


While the Federation of Family History Societies (FFHS) has indexes for most census years, the places covered and the number of names included in each year is patchy. The [www.familyhistoryonline.net FFHS site] is a central access point for the various census indexes created by societies and individuals. There are about 10 million records in total, with most of those coming from the 1851 and 1891 censuses. The collection is continually growing as indexes are added. Searching the indexes is free, but a small fee is charged to download a census entry. Images are not available.


The 1881 census was the first UK census index available on the Internet. This index is the product of a collaboration of the Federation of Family History Societies and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Originally published on microfiche, in 1999 the data was taken from microfiche and put onto a collection of CDs. Later the index was made available on the Internet at FamilySearch.org. This index is entirely free at FamilySearch, but does not include any corresponding digital images.


Originally, the site 1837Online.com was dedicated to posting information about civil registration. Since their beginning they have also added indexes and images for the 1841, 1861, 1871, and 1891 censuses of England, Wales, Channel Islands, and Isle of Man. Recently they have changed their name to FindMyPast.com. This is a pay-per-view service. Once you register, you can do a basic search for free, but you need to pay to see the full index or images.


Volunteers have contributed all of the indexes on FreeCEN. The indexes are patchy, covering a variety of years and places all over England, Wales, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man, and Scotland. The site is constantly being updated, and you can visit the site for details of what is available. All searches and page views are free. Images are not available.

Genes Reunited

A complete index with corresponding images for the 1901 censuses of England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man is online at <www.genesreuinted>. The National Archives and a company called Qinetiq created this index. This site offers a free search of the index with a pay-per-view charge to view the full transcription and a separate charge to view the digital image.


The General Register Office for Scotland has completed indexes for the 1841 to 1901 censuses of Scotland. The indexes are hosted on the GROS website. All but the 1881 census include digital images. Credits must be purchased to view the index or images.

Offline Access

While the original census returns are safely stored at national archives in Scotland and England, full and partial microfilm copies of these documents are available through County Record Offices throughout the United Kingdom and through thousands of family history centers run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Additional contact information for these and other research centers is available in List of UK Libraries and Archives.

Family History Library (FHL)

Located in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Family History Library is the largest library in the world dedicated to family history. The library was founded in 1894 by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is open to the public, free of charge. The library holds microfilm or microfiche copies of the 1841 to 1901 Scotland censuses and the 1841 to 1891 censuses for England, Wales, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. The library’s card catalog can be search at FamilySearch.org.

If a trip to Utah is not possible, film can be ordered through any of the branches of this library, called family history centers, located throughout the world.

To locate a family history center near you, visit this site] and enter a location.

Family Records Centre (FRC)

The Family Records Centre is jointly run by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and The National Archives (TNA). The centre provides access to a copy of all of the census years from 1841 to 1901 for England and Wales on either microfilm or microfiche. As of June 2006, The National Archives intends to move their staff and services from Myddelton Street, Islington, to the archives at Kew in 2008.

General Register Office for Scotland (GROS)

Census records for Scotland from 1841 to 1901 are public and are held by the General Register Office for Scotland (GROS) at New Register House in Edinburgh. Very few of the returns from 1801 to 1831 have survived.

The National Archives (TNA)

The surviving census forms for England, Wales, the Channel Islands, and the Isle of Man are available at The National Archives (TNA) in Kew. The 1931 census schedules were destroyed in World War II. Very few of the returns from 1801 to 1831 have survived.

If you cannot travel to London, but you know the reference number for the England or Wales census page you would like to view, you can order a copy of the record from The National Archives. Visit [www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/recordcopying/?source=ddmenu_shop3 The National Archives website] to order copies of documents. Researchers can obtain copies on paper or in a digital format.


All copies of the census, whether original, microfilm, microfiche, or digital, are under Crown copyright. Limited numbers of copies can be made for personal or academic research, compilation of indexes, or educational purposes. Questions about copyright can be addressed to the Office of Public Sector Information.

Permission is not required to use transcribed extracts from the returns.

External Links