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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, March 2003

Berkshire Family Historian
March 2003

Finding your way around the 1901 Census
Eddie Spackman

Most readers will be aware that the 1901 census for England and Wales is now available as a full Internet service at It first appeared on 2nd January 2002 but within a few days had to be ‘taken down’ because it could not cope with the demand. It re-appeared (quietly this time) in August as a ‘part­time’ test site and finally in late November as a 24-hour service. Eddie Spackman looks at some of the ways of finding those elusive ancestors and techniques for grouping them into households.

If you do not have Internet access at home and cannot use a computer at work you can try your local library, record office or cybercafé The online service is also available at the Family Records Centre (FRC) in Islington and in the Public Record Office (PRO) at Kew. Fiche copies of the enumeration pages can be viewed at the FRC and the PRO and most county record offices hold copies for their local area. CD ROM copies are also becoming available.

Despite criticisms of the quality of the transcription and the associated index this is a very valuable resource. Some transcriptions are obviously faulty but the enumerators also introduced errors. The problem is not unique to the 1901 census. In the i88i transcription there are place names that are wrong and surnames that cannot possibly exist. I now have several people from the 1901 census not yet found in 1881.

Many of the ‘blunders’ in the early version (e.g. ‘ditto’ as a surname and babies under one only found by searching for ages over a hundred) have been corrected. Genuine transcription errors will continue to be corrected if they are submitted to the PRO with appropriate piece/folio/page number. Enumerator errors will not be corrected.

Several reviews of the site, articles on how to use it and its problems have been published. See, for instance, ‘The 1901 Census Online’ by John Hanson and ‘Some 1901 Census Curiosities’ by Jeanne Bunting in the September 2002 issue of Computers in Genealogy1.

Search techniques

The Index can be searched with several parameters (e.g. forename and/or surname, age, place of birth, occupation, census location etc.). It is wise to start by entering only a little information —perhaps just surname and place of birth. If the number of results returned would exceed 300 or the time taken to do the search is excessive, no results are returned and the search must be refined. How you do this will depend on the rarity of the surname, the possibilities for misspelling and the geographical extent of the search.

Enumeration and transcription errors result in unexpected (as well as expected) spellings of both names and places. A lot of lateral thinking will be needed to find some people and wildcards should be used to help. The wild card ‘*‘ is used to represent any number of characters whilst ‘‘(underscore) is used for a single character. Wildcards may not be used in the first two characters of any search parameter. However, the search on a forename can include a space as the first character; thus a search on ‘j*’ (that is, space j asterisk) returns all forenames starting with ‘j’ - viz James, John etc and variants or errors such as Jn, Jams etc. ‘?‘ cannot be used as a wildcard but is sometimes used in the transcription for unreadable characters.

Many enumerators had clear handwriting but some varies from difficult to read to illegible. Also pages maybe torn or contain ink blots. I rate a page which includes two of my great grandparents as ‘very difficult to read’. The place of birth of one is misleadingly transcribed as ‘Lincoln’ although it can just be recognised as ‘London Bermondsey’. Attempting to transcribe this and some other data on this page can only be described as guesswork.

‘...‘ (three full stops) is used for unreadable fields. You can search, for example, on '..*man*' to find anything starting with two dots and containing ‘man’. ‘...ealesloman’ and ‘...arman’ were among the surnames returned.

The full transcription for an individual (not normally recommended) costs 50p. Transcription of all the other members of the household (only recommended for those in institutions such as hospitals, schools etc) costs a further 50p. It is usually better to pay 75p for an image of the enumeration page. This can be enlarged and printed but is best downloaded onto your computer before printing with image viewing or processing software. ‘Irfanview’ is excellent for this purpose and can be used to crop those annoying edges, which use so much valuable ink or toner. Go to for more information and to download a copy. The images are high quality and, although generally adequate at A4 size, can be enlarged when the writing is difficult to read. When downloading census images use the suggested filename containing piece, folio and page number but add details of the individual so that you can easily identify the file later.
Payment can be made by voucher, credit or debit card. Vouchers are preferable as they have a shelf life of six months from the date first used and when they have insufficient credit to pay for the requested service the balance is automatically transferred to your new voucher. Vouchers can be purchased from our society: see details.

What can one get from the Index?

It is possible to get most ‘traditional’ details used by family historians from the index without paying a penny. People in the same household can be identified from the ‘pageId’ (for the enumeration page) and ‘personld’ (for the person) hidden in the HTML code of the ‘Person Result list’. Individuals with the same pageId appear on the same enumeration page and will often be in the same household. The personId’ is consecutive for each person in the census so that a gap in the numbering indicates one or more individuals not yet found. There is a gap of one in the personId numbering at the end an enumeration page.

The method for viewing the page and person Ids depends on the Internet Browser in use. Hover the mouse over the ‘image icon’ for an individual and a ‘link’ containing the pageId may appear at the bottom of the page. If not, right click on the image and then click on ‘properties’ to display the information. Similarly the personId can be viewed by hovering the mouse over the person link.

Great care should be used when searching on ‘Marital condition’ or ‘Relation to Head of family’ in the Advanced search. Misleading results will be returned if the field was not filled in. For instance, a person may be returned by both ‘single’ and ‘widowed’ searches.

Census software

Software is available to simplify the extraction process and automate the sorting of individuals into households. The most widely known is from ‘Leeds Indexers’ — see details at This also generates the Piece number and an estimate of the Folio number so you can locate images on fiche or CD. The software is described at ‘1901 Census extractor & GuessTimator — A guide & Review by Margaret Shaw’ in the December 2002 issue of Computers in Genealogy1.

Sample report

A sample of some Harrisons sorted into households based on information extracted solely from the Index to the 1901 census using the author’s software

The figure shows a sample report for three households which I produced using my own software. It includes Piece/Folio numbers (these can no longer be obtained due to a change in the way the PRO site operates - March 2003) and Chapman County Codes are inserted where possible or to replace county names.

Surname frequency

It can be difficult to know which variant surname spellings to search for. The Office of National Statistics (ONS) database of surnames in use in England, Wales and the Isle of Mann at September 2002 can be queried at <www.taliesin­> to help. Smith with a count of 652,563 is the most common surname. Results from a wildcard search using ‘Sm*h' includes names such as Smeath, Smeeth and Smyth as well as their frequency of occurrence.

Help with the census

We hold evening seminars on ‘Using the 1901 census’ at the Research Centre whenever there are enough applicants. For further information contact email address for workshops.

(rewritten May 2003) Internet access is available any time the Centre is open using a broadband connection but on Tuesday evenings from 7pm to 9:30pm and 2nd Sunday afternoons ‘experts’ are present who can help you use the census.

A ‘Search and report’ service

(updated Nov 2005) Following Eddie Spackman's passing in 2005 the Search and Report service has been discontinued.

Please refer to the webmaster or other contact if you have - comments, questions, details of missing links - queries about this site
© Berkshire Family History Society 2003

created 30th May 2003
updated 26th Nov 2005