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Since 1801, information about the population of the United Kingdom has been collected every ten years by means of a census. Census records after 1841 are a resource of tremendous potential for family historians.

Census records are focused on the inhabitants of buildings, be they houses, factories, ships or prisons. The census provides a snapshot of family groupings, where other sources focus on individuals. Census records can provide the answers to many questions about individuals and family members.

  • Census records can assist you to narrow down birth or death dates, which can be confirmed using civil registration records
  • Census records can identify parish of birth
  • Information about occupations can lead you to further research in other sources

It is important to note that many people would not be at home on the night that the census was taken. Your ancestor’s occupations may have resulted in their being away from home on the night of the census, and would appear to be missing from the family home. Many young people were employed as domestic or farm servants, which would result in their being listed as part of their employers’ household. Sailors, for instance, could have been away from home and may be listed in a (domestic) port somewhere else.

The census will show lodgers, employees, servants and anyone who happened to be at home on the night of the census. Those kept prisoner in prisons, patients in asylums, scholars in boarding or reformatory schools, are all shown.


Census records are arranged by address rather than by people’s names. You’ll need to know where your family were living in order to trace them on a census – unless the census has been indexed!

More and more censuses are now being indexed. The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints (LDS) have produced an index of the 1881 British census, which includes over 26 million individuals. The 1881 index can be very useful for as a starting point to go back or forward in time.


Gwynedd Archives holds census records for the counties of Caernarfon and Meirionnydd from 1841 – 1901.

Census 1801 – 1831

The censuses of 1801 – 1831 were statistical headcounts. The enumerators were not officially concerned with the identities of individuals, their occupations or their family relationships. Some enumarators in some districts compiled lists of names and occupations supplementary to the information required for the census. It is believed that no such local census exist for Gwynedd prior to 1841.

Census 1841

From the point of view of family history, the 1841 census is regarded as being the first census in Britain. The census taken on 6 June 1841 was the first census to be concerned with named individuals. Unfortunately the census was compiled in pencil, which can make it difficult to read. The census enquired about the origins of the informants, by asking if they were born in the county of residence (requiring a Y for Yes, N for No response) and if not, whether born in Scotland (S), Ireland (I) or foreign parts (F). The relationship between members of the same household are not explicitly stated. These can be understood by examining ages and names. The information gathered about each person included:

  • Full name
  • Age (but rounded down to the nearest five years for people over 15 years)
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Information as to whether or not the informant was born in the county.


Bear in mind that people’s ages as shown on the 1841 census may be inaccurate. Someone aged 29 would appear as 25, someone aged 69 would appear as 65.

Census 1851-1901

The 1851 census was taken on 30 March 1851. The 1851 census is in many ways more useful to family historians than the preceeding census. The information recorded is more precise, more legible and wider in scope. A number of additional questions were included to gather more information about the individuals, their families and the society they lived in. The correct age was now recorded. The 1891 census contains additional information on the use of the Welsh language in Wales, which demonstrated levels of monoglotism and bilingualism in the country.

The information gathered now included:

  • Full address
  • Full name
  • Exact age
  • Marital status
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Sex
  • Occupation
  • Parish and county of birth
  • Various medical disabilities
  • Ability to speak Welsh (from 1891 onwards)


Census records are closed for 100 years to protect the confidentiality of people’s answers, which means that the most current census available is the 1901 census.


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A photgraph of a woman, 19th century

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