Most readers will be aware that the 1901 census for
England and Wales is now available as a full Internet service at www.census.pro.gov.uk/.
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
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.
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
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 www.irfanview.com
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
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’
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 www.leedsindexers.co.uk/.
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
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.
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.taliesinarlein.net/names/search.php> 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 .
(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.