Missing from the census?

All family historians use the census, and most of us find most of what we want, most of the time. This is of course due to the fact that every census for England and Wales has been indexed; sometimes you even have a number of versions to choose from, so if you don’t find a person on one website, you might find them on another. Where the handwriting is hard to read, it all comes down to interpretation.

But sometimes, despite your best efforts, a person or a family stubbornly refuses to be found. You might even have tried searching for them ‘the old-fashioned way’. That is, searching by address, assuming you have some indication of where they were living at the time of the census, and that they either lived in a village or there is a street index for their town. That was the usual way of finding someone in the census until just over a decade ago.

If you have exhausted all the possibilities of using name indexes, including possible mis-spellings and mis-transcriptions, you are left with a dwindling number of possibilities, which fall into three categories:

  • They are there, you just can’t see them
  • They are missing from the census altogether
  • They are, or rather were, in the census but in a part of it that has since gone missing
Albert Square in 1871 - several 'men unknown' (reference RG 10/544 f117 p41)

Albert Square in 1871 – several ‘men unknown’ (reference RG 10/544 f117 p41)

You might not find an individual or a family because the name is quite different from the one you were expecting; this can happen where a widow re-marries and then she and her children from the first marriage are all listed under her new husband’s surname. There was no need for such a change of name to involve any paperwork whatsoever, and it is not at all unusual for children to revert to their own father’s surname in later life, or even to switch back and forth between the two. Others may have the same surname throughout, but appear with different given names, because they use a middle name or a nickname, in preference to the first name that their parents chose. Some guests at the wedding of a couple I know thought they were at the wrong church, because they had been invited to Nick and Janice’s wedding, but the order of service said Charles and Bridget! A few people are listed without a name at all, but only initials. This is the way that inmates of prisons and asylums are sometimes enumerated, although plenty of them do appear with their full names, too.

You need to take particular care with Scottish families who use the traditional naming pattern, inevitably resulting in several family members with exactly the same name. The practical response to this was the creative use of diminutives and variants, some of which seem to defy all logic. Did you know, for example, that Pearl is a variant of Margaret? I didn’t. My favourite is an ancestor called Isabel (itself a variant of Elizabeth) who appears in one census as ‘Ezzybean’. Alan Bardsley’s ‘First Name Variants’ (FFHS 2003) is a really useful guide, although even this book doesn’t warn you that a girl called Happy might have been baptised Kerenhappuch.

Some rugged individualists, of course, absent themselves from the census on principle. The suffragette boycott of the 1911 census is fairly well-known, but there have been cases in every census where people have refused to fill in their census paper. The artist J M W Turner is reputed to have rowed himself out to the middle of the Thames on census night in 1841 to put himself out of the jurisdiction of any enumerator. But genuine instances of refusal to complete a census form are rare, and prosecutions even rarer. In 1861 the Registrar General, George Graham, said:

‘I treat these cases of obstinacy as more or less connected with insanity; and being isolated cases not very frequently met with, I do not think it necessary to prosecute the recusants’

(catalogue reference HO 45/7098)

So if your ancestor was not enumerated, it is likely to have been by accident rather than design. Or they might have been out of the country at the time of the census. Anyone who was in the army, the navy or the merchant service is likely to have been beyond the reach of the census authorities some of the time – in the case of the army they might be stationed in Scotland or Ireland, where they would be enumerated in that census instead. Since most 19th Irish census returns do not survive, this is only really useful for 1901 and 1911.

Robert and Mary Donaldson (photograph from private collection)

Robert and Mary Donaldson (photograph from private collection)

What is more surprising is the number of people who are out of the country but whose descendants have no inkling that they ever travelled at all. I have a picture of my own great-great grandparents sitting outside their cottage in Montrose, and I always thought that this sweet old couple had spent all their (very long) lives there, while two of their sons ventured all the way to the brave new world of Glasgow. I have their baptisms, their marriage and the births of their 9 children, all within a small geographical area, and I found them in every census from 1841 to 1911, except 1901. This did not bother me because I thought I knew everything I needed to know about them. I was wrong. When I was looking for something else altogether I found that at the time of the 1901 census they were in the middle of the 13 years they spent farming in Minnesota!

This leaves us with the bits of the census that are missing altogether, perhaps the most frustrating of all answers we have to give to enquirers. No census is 100% complete, although some are better than others. You can get a rough idea of which parts of a census are missing by searching in Discovery, our online catalogue, using the keywords ‘missing’ or ‘wanting’, and restricting your search to the reference for that census; HO 107 for 1841 and 1851, RG 9 for 1861, RG 10 for 1871 and so on, up to RG 14 for 1911. This will usually show where all or part of a parish or district has not survived, and you will see that 1861 has more damaged or missing parts than any other year. The missing parts even of this census still only represent a tiny proportion of the whole census, but that still amounts to an awful lot of people. You may still find that an odd page is missing in this or any census, and we don’t always know about all of them – only last week I had to disappoint an enquirer who hoped that a page missing from the online census has just been left out when it was scanned from the film. Sadly, it wasn’t on the film, and in case you ask, it is missing from the original book too.

I don’t wish to end on an entirely gloomy note, there is sometimes a silver lining. Sometimes there are unidentified fragments of documents (not just census) that are reunited with their ‘parent’. Pages for the 1861 and 1871 censuses are identical, so if a page is separated from its book it is all but impossible to know which year it belongs to. Many years ago, when the census returns were being filmed, a stray page from one of these censuses had found its way into the wrong year. It stayed there, undetected and unsuspected, until a sharp-eyed researcher recognised their own family, except that the ages were all ten years out. I don’t remember which way round it was, but you get the picture! So after many decades in the wrong place, the page could finally be put back in its rightful place.

RG 10 341 f 13 p 21

Original page from 1871 – being re-scanned

So sometimes there is hope. And on the most topical of notes, as I was typing the last paragraph, I received an email telling me that an enumeration district in the 1871 census which is so faint as to be virtually unreadable on film or online is today being re-scanned from the original book, and will in due course appear on the Ancestry site.

50 comments

  1. David Underdown says:

    Of course overseas military and naval are included in the 1911 census, and for those in Ireland the caveat about being listed under initials also applies to army and navy

    1. iris dempster says:

      hi regarding the census 1911 my dad was not on it as far as we no he was born in the July of that year but he has no birth index on him we have no way of finding out were he was born is or who his parents were there someone that can help me

    2. iris dempster says:

      hi regarding the census 1911 my dad was not on it as far as we no he was born in the July of that year but he has no birth index on him we have no way of finding out were he was born is or who his parents were there someone that can help me his birth was 1911 his name charles henry jacobson

    3. Xeno says:

      The Census was taken in April, therefore he would not have been born.

  2. David Matthew says:

    The point about checking other companies’ versions of the census, including one well-known company who thinks that Chestershire and Cornwallshire exist so checking under Cheshire or Cornwall won’t work neither will looking under ‘Lambeth’ or other placesin London as they are only indexed under London even Lambeth etc are on the page. It shoud be remembered that the census was a snap-shot of the county at Midnight, so you may as I did, that the head of the household was not at home but guarding the mill all by himself. Some people, like my grandfather, was in the Royal Navy and was listed even though he was either mis-transcribed (he was listed as the only person of that name in the country, a sure sign of mis-transcription) or not transcribed. The other reason for missing census entries are that they were lost when being sent to London.

  3. Derek Thomas says:

    Thank you for a very helpful article.

  4. Sue Adams says:

    “using the keywords ‘missing’ or ‘wanting’, and restricting your search to the reference for that census; HO 107 for 1841 and 1851, RG 9 for 1861, RG 10 for 1871 and so on, up to RG 14 for 1911. This will usually show where all or part of a parish or district has not survived”

    Excellent tip

  5. Simon Fowler says:

    Also worth searching by initial. The painter John Turner might have been recorded as J M W in the census.
    And about a third of emigrants eventually returned home for one reason or another, which could explain why they are missing from a particular census.

  6. Sarah Norman says:

    There is also the problem of mis-transcription- F’s being mistaken for Ts for instance. A wildcard search helps with this. In the 1911 census many Suffragettes refused to fill in the census so the entry would read “the women of the household refused to fill in the census”- a comment by the Enumerator

    1. Edwin Reffell says:

      For R I have found B, F, H, K and S. For e I have found a, i, o, u, ew and vowel combinations. For f I have found p, s, t and v, For ll I Ihave found l.le, lla, lle ld, ls, lt and tt. Also i found a DUFFELL transcribed as REFFELL. But I have not found any mention of my grandfather Leon Augustus under any name after the 1881 census for Carshalton where that part of the family was recorded as RIFFELLE, He was born in 1869 in Uxbridge, Hayes. Can he possibly be missing from 3 censuses? He was killed on board a ship during “the war” according to my aunt but even his death record is nowhere to be found. So I would like to know where on the page to write the keyword and where and how to restrict the search with the references for those 3 censuses. The Discovery online catalogue is far from easy to search. Therefore exactly the same words used for the various parts of the search page would have made a difficult task easier to undertake. The visual tour is no help.

  7. David Matthew says:

    The one I like is the index entry for an empty lock-up shed. In addition dead people are also indexed!. The motto should be don’t rely on the transcription, look at the actual image.

    1. Helen French says:

      I’m sure I once found an entry for someone living in a haystack!

    2. Karen says:

      Always check the original image – too true!!
      For a long time I couldn’t find my g.grandmother and her parents in the 1891 census. I had located them in previous and later census’ so where were they in 1891?
      Eventually I searched without surname – they showed up but with an odd surname. The transcriber, perhaps tired at the end of a long day, had given them the surname of the family next door! The original image clearly showed my family with their correct surname.

  8. Scott Hamilton says:

    I recently found my great x 3 grandfather hiding on the 1891 census. For whatever reason he had given his name as John Smith. It wasn’t until I searched for his wife without entering their surname that I found them. Aside from my great x 3 grandfather’s name their forenames, ages and places of birth were all accurate.

    I haven’t worked out what or who he was hiding from, but considering I’ve found him mentioned in several articles on the British Newspaper Archive website after committing petty crimes I’m sure he had a good reason at the time!

  9. Pat Chaplin says:

    Thank you for a very informative read.
    I was stumped for 7 years regards my grandfather who I couldn’t find on any census between 1881 and 1911. Then by pure chance I found him using his second name on the 2nd Boer War records. In those missing years he was serving in Egypt, India and South Africa in the 2nd Boer War. He was discharged in June 1901…after the 1901 census was taken.
    As far as I know., he was just spoken about as being an Ag Lab from Suffolk who moved to Essex. None of my family had a clue he had been abroad…let alone in the military. If they did…nobody spoke about it.

    Never give up on your ancestors. In my experience they usually turn up somewhere. :)

  10. Helen French says:

    Another problem is that people weren’t always entirely truthful or accurate. It took me a long time to find a husband, wife and daughter in the 1901 census because I knew that all three of them should be there, but as the husband and wife had separated which just wasn’t done then, both listed themselves as Widowed. I eventually traced them through the daughter.
    Perseverance is a virtue, but I leave long gaps between bouts of it, so I come back prepared to look with a fresh eye and think laterally.

  11. David Underdown says:

    Alternatively some people do seem to have thought they had to tell the truth or they might get found out. Rather the opposite to you I was researching someone who was believed to have always been single, certainly none of his freinds seem to have known he was ever married, obit stated never married etc. In 1911 he declared himself as married, though living by himself, which led me to two sets of papers in J 77 and a nasty tale of drunkeness and wife beating, and he does appear in one earlier census living with his wife, in-laws and young son during the very brief time they were together. Had he just lied in 1911 I would probably have assumed it was just someone with the same name, not the man I was looking for

  12. Christine Wibberley says:

    What about enumerator error both in relation to missing people listed on the return and mistranscription of names and other detail.?

    I had an unusual entry, which took some finding, in relation to my gg grandparents, Edward and Elizabeth (Betty) CHAPMAN. Edward died sadly young in 1843. No sign of any of them in 1841 and no trace as to where Edward was born. A search of the tenement building where my great grandmother was born in 1843 revealed a family Edward a coal miner, 25, Betty a cotton weaver 25 Emily 5 and Mary 2. Certainly them but all named NEWTON. They lived on the Lancashire Cheshire border and the indication as to whether Edward was born in or out of the county (Cheshire) Betty definitely born out (actually born Lancashire). Conclusion: Enumerator drawn into and diverted by a discussion as to exact location of illiterate Edward’s birth and that he was in fact born in NEWTON, a village, a township, a chapelry, and a sub-district, in the district of Ashton-under-Lyne, (historically Lancashire) and county of Chester.
    Census ref. Class: HO107; Piece: 109; Book: 12; Civil Parish: Stockport; County: Cheshire; Enumeration District: 12; Folio: 12; Page: 18; Line: 10

  13. Cherry A. Bessant says:

    Interesting article, especially about the Suffragettes not being on the 1911 Census.
    My paternal grandparents married using the husbands second name as their surname. The reason he gave later when correcting the name was that he thought his mother would not have approved the marriage. I finally found them on the 1901 Census by chance while looking at other names on the original written census forms.
    They were living as Mr. and Mrs Turner, the name they used for the marriage, but on the 1911 Census he gave his proper surname of Smith. I am still trying to trace his birth record which he gave as London, Lambeth.

  14. Diane Farrington says:

    It’s always important to look at the original image. I had one ancestor who was apparently living with a family called Lines. This wasn’t a local name and meant nothing to me. When I looked at the image, the penny dropped! Their surname was Sims, which did make sense.

  15. Clair Davis says:

    I always check the original image, and prefer to make my own mistakes than straight from others trees. Everytime I find an error I update it. I have a couple of unusual names to research so they are always are always mispelt. I found one relation the other day who they had listed Laura as the father. On closer inspection Laura was David.

  16. Robert Edmonds says:

    Bowling Bradford 1901 census

    http://www.ancestry.co.uk are completely missing the following:

    Census: 1901
    Reg district: Bradford
    Reg sub-district: Bowling
    Enumerator’s Districts: 10-18

    So at least 500 houses missing here. These records are complete on www. findmypast.co.uk.

    Have had email confirmation from Ancestry.com today (12.11.2014) on this and acknowledging that they are indeed missing these. Also comment along the lines of we have passed this to our records people, but “there is no foreseeable timeframe as to when these changes will be made.”

    Hope this is some help and Google will pick it up so searchers find it!

    Robert.

  17. Pat N says:

    I an lead to believe my grandad was in a circus or funfair in his youth. Are there any special areas of the Census to find these records? He doesn’t seem to exist before his marriage in 1914. His Name was John Robert Jones…you see my additional problem….

  18. Mair Christie says:

    Have found nothing to help me – my address has existed since at least 1841 but seems to be missing from 1861 onwards & I don’t want to have to access records using paying sites.

    1. D Brown says:

      I use the Ancestry Site at my local library.
      All free.
      All facilities available.
      I even posted notes because other researches had my grandfather with the wrong wife and daughter.
      It is possible to research without paying…..
      DB

  19. celita alcartio says:

    i have one hell of a problem. my greatgrandmother was born in 1901 and so was her twin sister phoebe in liverpool. heres the problem no birth certificate match for both of them got a christening for my greatgrandmother jannett in cheshire, but thats all. no christening for phoebe. then 1901 census only mentions pheobe no jannett and no sign of any of them after that census, phoebe died aged 10 when her dress caught fire one night but again no death certificate. jannett was then next seen on cencus and other forms at 15 when she and her brothers left liverpool to work in halifax west yorkshire when she was 15. as there was no work in liverpool. their parents joseph griffiths was from wales and jane jenkins liverpool. any idea why i can not find anything very baffaling.

  20. Jools says:

    A really important thing to remember is that the people who are transcribing the records are not from the area & have no local knowledge, so are guessing at the spelling of places & people….. this is highlighted by the fact that (I don’t remember if it is/was ancestry or fmp who farmed the transcribing out to the Philippines….. now you can see why some of the names are so horrendously transcribed… firstly they have no knowledge of the spelling of the names & also don’t understand the letter sequencing of the English alphabet… for instance you never get an m followed by a j !!!!! So I agree with some of the previous comments always check the records yourself & work out the spelling, comparing letters from different words often helps.

  21. Audrey B says:

    As always, a very useful article by Audrey Collins. Her talks (on the NA Podcast Series) are always my favourites.
    It’s frustrating that servicemen, while abroad, aren’t captured by the Census. My grandfather is missing from the 1901 census. Fortunately, I have been able to find his Navy record – he was serving on HMS Woodlark in China at the time. As the Census takes the trouble to record “vessel” you’d think they could have listed the men whether home or abroad.

  22. Duncan says:

    After waiting some considerable time for the release of the 1911 Census, I was shocked to see that on that day of the Census, my mother, (born out of wedlock 90% sure) as a baby of 2 months was not on the sheet, although her 18 yearold mother was. I do know she spent some time with Grandparents and an Aunt. Her Marriage certificate gives her uncles name as father ( who shared the same surname as her mother and listed as her brother on the Census). So perhaps a face saving name was entered on the Marriage certificate instead of a blank space.
    Cant wait to see where she is in 1921
    14/02/ 2016

  23. Jenny says:

    This is a very helpful article. I have had some eureka moments in locating missing people, usually children, who turned up with their grandparents. This has enabled me to link the families together. In one case, an ancestor had 2 grandchildren staying with him, both with completely different surnames, and this allowed me to find the married names of 2 of his daughters. More depressing is the missing chunks of the 1861 census.

  24. Deb says:

    Has anyone ever come across an instance where a house number was completely missing? Also does anyone know why this would happen? Number 43 and number 47 etc are all there ( 1891 census) but number 45 is missing.It should have been there , second house on the page. I know that the whole family who lived there are missing. They are not enumerated any where else. I have found them on every other census.
    Bemused

  25. Russell Croker says:

    Dear Sir or Madam. I would like to known a bit more about 19th Irish census please. If you can help me with information. Thank You from Russell Croker

  26. Audrey Collins says:

    Russell

    Many 19th century Irish records were destroyed, but the surviving returns are all held by the National Archives of Ireland. Their website has lots of useful information, and you can also search the records there http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie/

  27. lisa harris says:

    Missing, Eliza Laffan, on 1901 Irish census aged 10 she was there, however missing from all searched on 1911 aged 19/20, she did not marry until between 1914/1916……. where was she in 1911, thanks

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Lisa,

      Thank you for your comment.

      We’re unable to help with research requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      I hope that helps.

      Nell

  28. Bruce says:

    Within the last week I have been unable to view images within the two National Archives Censuses and within the Property Losses and Police Reports of their 1916 section.
    Clicking on an image for census images the following message appears –
    “Forbidden
    You don’t have permission to access /reels/nai003654562/ on this server”
    Clicking on Property losses the following message appears –
    “Forbidden
    You don’t have permission to access /reels/plic/PLIC_1_1831.pdf on this server”

    I am using the latest Adobe Acrobat reader software National Archives advise.
    Has anyone else had this problem and is there a solution or have National Archives withdrawn the image viewing facility?

    1. David Underdown says:

      The nai part at the start of the references suggests you might be trying to looking at the Census of Ireland website from the National Archives of Ireland, not British censuses?

  29. Jill Mahon says:

    A relative born in 1880 is shown with her father as a boatman and their address is Camp Hill Canary Wharf.I cannot find her or her parents or 3 older siblings on the 1881 census,as they lived on a boat should they have been recorded.

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Jill,

      Thank you for your comment.

      We’re unable to help with research requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      I hope that helps.

      Best,

      Nell

  30. iris dempster says:

    my fathers name was charles henry jacobson born 10 july 1911 but no certifecate

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Iris,

      Thank you for your comment.

      We’re unable to help with research requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      I hope that helps.

      Best,

      Nell

  31. Sue bunn says:

    How do I find children who have lived and died in between censuses and without knowing their Christian names.

    1. Nell Brown (Admin) says:

      Hi Sue,

      Thanks for your comment. We’re unable to help with research requests on the blog, but if you go to our contact us page: http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      Good luck with your research.

      Nell

  32. haivantn says:

    Thank you for a very helpful article.

  33. John king says:

    In the 1911 census, the occupation of my great, great. grandfather is listed as ” Road Scavenger” which conjures up all sorts of possibilities. Any idea of exactly what this job entailed??

  34. Gwenda Cliff says:

    My paternal Grandfather was in business in London, as a “Collar Maker”. His surname was Davis, my father, was his illegitimate son. He, Davis, lived in St. James Haymarket, London, but I cannot trace him, from Census ( he was residing at this location in 1902). I have tried to find a record for years. Perhaps I should give up, even though I would like to have confirmation of his existence.

    1. Liz Bryant (Admin) says:

      Hi Gwenda,

      Thanks for your comment.

      We can’t answer research requests on the blog, but if you go to our ‘contact us’ page at http://nationalarchives.gov.uk/contact/ you’ll see how to get in touch with our record experts via phone, email or live chat.

      Best regards,

      Liz.

  35. Karen Sawyer says:

    Thank you for the article… most illuminating! For those searching for Welsh ancestors, it’s worth noting that when a person was given the same first and last name, the surname was given an ‘s’ after it. For example, only my 2nd great grandather was Owen Owens (with an ‘s’), while his wife and children are all Owen. Just a small detail, but it might help someone :)

  36. W R Tunnicliffe says:

    1911 census. Livingstone Road Isleworth. For some reason there seem to no census records for numbers 30 to 33 (I am interested in No 33). Up to 29 and 34 onwards are available to view online.

  37. Judy Bean says:

    How long were the enumerators given to collect all the 1911 census schedules, I was wondering if it was possible for a servant to have their name added by the head of household and for that servant to abscond and end up getting their name on a barge schedule in a different county.

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