Have you ever been “stumped” by the 1841 England and Wales Census? Have you searched for ancestors, knowing they lived in a particular parish, and not been able to find them?

I have been on Ancestry.com for over ten years and have encountered this same exact problem many times. I would like to share my strategy for finding these elusive relatives with you.

The first problem I came across in my search was the readability of some of the pages. The census takers used lead pencils instead of ink pens when filling them out. After a time, this writing has become faded and difficult to read. Another issue was the actual handwriting of the census takers. Some were very neat and legible, while others were almost indecipherable.

Then there is the transcription of these pages by Ancestry.com. The people transcribing these records typed what they saw. They did not take the time to scrutinize words and make sure they were correct. They would copy the given name David as Daniel, Albert as Alfred, and Joan as Jean.

The census takers would also write down nicknames, instead of formal names. Elizabeth would be Betsey or Bessie. Frances would be Frannie or Fannie. Susanna would be Susan or Suzie.

Census takers would likewise abbreviate names. William would be Wm, Thomas would be Thos, and John would be Jno.

They would spell words how they sounded. They would write the surname Oxborough as Oxbrow, Oxbrough or Ocksbrow. White as Wyte, Wite or Wiete.   I am sure the misspelling was due in part to the distinct accents of people in different regions of England.

A person’s age was also an issue on the 1841 census. Census takers rounded up or down. A 58-year-old individual rounded up to 60. A 16-year-old rounded down to 15. I have found children in the same family who were 14, 15, and 16 years of age, all listed as 15 years old on the census.

Below, I have listed several tips that you can use on Ancestry.com to make your search more fruitful.

Before searching the 1841 census:

  • Did you find your ancestor in the 1851 England and Wales Census?
  • Did they have children born before 1841?
  • If so, the 1851 census lists the parish in which the child was born.
  • You can backtrack, with this birth location, to find the correct parish.

If that does not work, go to the 1841 census:

Click the Search button on the individual. Then the Edit Search button. It will then open your person’s vital information.

  • Under the Last Name, click on the Exact button and mark the boxes Sounds Like, Similar and Soundex.
  • Then, under the Birth Year, click on the Exact button and mark the +/- 10 years box.
  • In the Birth Location field, type in the county and country (such as Suffolk, England).
  • In the Lived In field, type in the parish, county, and country (such as Beccles, Suffolk, England).
  • Finally, click on the Search button at the bottom of the page.

The results will show every person with that given and surname name (or a variant spelling of the surname). Including those within that specified date range, who lived in that parish.You will need to scroll through these names until you find your ancestor. Remember to look for variations of the names.

Still no luck? Then try this:

  • Remove the surname, leaving the Last Name empty.
  • Click the Exact button under the First and Middle Name(s), mark the boxes Sounds Like, Similar and Initials.
  • Click the Search button at the bottom of the page.

The results will show every person with that given name (or a variant spelling of that given name). Including those within that specified date range, who lived in that parish. You will need to scroll through these names until you find a surname that might be your ancestor’s. Remember to look for variations of the names.

As a final effort:

If you are 100% sure that they were living in a particular parish in 1841, you can try a manual search of the records.

  • Go down to the Browse Individual Records button and click to open.
  • Select the appropriate County and Civil Parish.
  • Next, select the Enumeration District button to open the list.

If you know the Enumeration District Number, click on it. It will show you the first page of the census. You can then use the right arrow to scroll through the pages until you find your ancestor.

If you do not know the number, you will have to search each one until you find the correct parish. Many parishes had more than one Enumeration District. An example would be that of Fressingfield, Suffolk. It had two Enumeration Districts in 1841, District 2 and District 3. You would need to search both of these districts to locate your ancestor.

Another aid to help you in your search is the Learn More About This Database button. You will find it located above the Browse Individual Records button. It contains information about the census including any known problems. In the case of the 1841 census, it shows a list of missing parishes or parts of parishes.

If the parish you are looking for is not in the census, you may need to search electoral or directory listings. You can find these under the Census and Voters lists, and the Directories lists. You may also want to look through criminal, tax and land records.

I know this takes a little more time and many people give up after their first initial searches. I would say, be persistent! Don’t give up! With a little extra effort, you will find your ancestor.

I hope this article was helpful in your family history search. Please leave a comment below, if you would like to add information about the 1841 census. Any tips or hints you can supply will be useful to the next researchers looking for their ancestors.