Finding Your Ancestor on the England Census Records

Have you ever “lost” an ancestor while searching the England census records? There are many reasons that you can lose the trail of an ancestor:

They moved to another area or immigrated to another country.
They changed their names to elude creditors.
They did not trust the government or the census takers.
A sudden and unexpected death.
The census records were faded and unreadable.
The census records were not transcribed.
The names were misspelled.
The ages were incorrect.
The census records were destroyed or missing.

One reason for this disappearance that is not widely known is that your ancestor may have been a patient or inmate of a jail (gaol), hospital or lunatic asylum. I have found several instances where this has occurred in my family trees. Below is an example of how I was able to find my ancestor.

I was building the profile for Charles Aldous (1853 to 1904) on Ancestry.com. I had added the England census records from 1861 to 1891 when he suddenly went missing.

I did locate his wife, Eliza, living in Ditchingham, with their two youngest children, Robert and Jane, on the 1901 England census. Eliza’s marital status was listed as “married” on the document, but Charles was not there.

I thought maybe he was working outside the area until an Ancestry.com “hint” appeared that got me thinking.  The “hint” was to a record entitled UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912. The document showed a Charles Aldous had been admitted on December 8, 1900, and died January 16, 1904, at a Norfolk asylum.

I thought that maybe this was our Charles, so I started a search of the 1901 England census. There is a simple trick to find a person that has been institutionalized on the England censuses. Here is what you should do when searching:

For any patient or inmate residing in a lunatic asylum or jail (gaol), the census takers would list the person’s first and last initials.

In this case, I changed Charles Aldous to C (given name) and A (surname).

The age was normally approximated.

I put 1853 (+/- 5 years).

The birthplace was almost always listed as “unknown.” I am not sure if it was because of a privacy issue or that the census officials thought it unnecessary.

I left the birthplace (or birth location) blank.

Next, I opened a new tab on my computer to find the closest asylum to where Charles and Eliza were residing. You would be amazed at how much information you can find on the internet! Below, you will find the top four websites that popped up when I typed in “closest lunatic asylum to Thwaite St Mary, Norfolk, England.”  The first and third entries show that Thorpe St Andrews near Norwich is the closest asylum to Thwaite St Mary.

If you use Google Maps, you will see that Thorpe is only 15 miles north of Thwaite.

The last item that I entered in the search menu on Ancestry.com was Thorpe Next Norwich, Norfolk, England on the “lived in” line.   After I pressed the “enter” key, here is what appeared:

Of the top four entries, there are two with the initials C.A. I clicked on the one whose birth year was1852. The next snippet shows the census page.

The record for Charles is number 9, showing C.A., married, age 49 (1852).

The final record that I added to Charles’ profile was the death record. From the UK, Lunacy Patients Admission Registers, 1846-1912, I knew that Charles had died at the asylum. The 1901 census record listed Thorpe in the Blofield Registration District in Norfolk. I refined my search to this year, district and county. Below, you will see that only one death record matched these criteria.

The Ancestry.com “hint” was a great help in finding this ancestor. Without it, I may never have finished the profile for Charles Aldous.

If you have an ancestor who has disappeared from a census record, remember there are many different reasons, as noted above. One of the causes, sadly, is that some people were institutionalized for mental illness.

I have still been unable to find out why census takers used initials instead of full names for inmates and patients. I have tried searching the internet on several occasions with no meaningful results.

I am inclined to believe that the census officials and asylum directors were trying to protect the identities of their patients. As the law required that every person was to be enumerated, the census takers recorded only the basic information for these individuals.

If you can shed some light on why initials were used on the census records, please leave a message in the Comments Section of this page. I would be very interested in your answer and where I can find this information. Thank you for all your help!