I’ve lost an ancestor in the online censuses! How can I find him/her?
By ROY STOCKDILL
This is a very common problem, especially when an individual is found in one census but not
in another. It´s important to remember that census returns can contain many errors of
mistranscription and indexing, plus enumerator´s errors and the fact that information often
varies, sometimes wildly, from one census to another.
But remember also that transcribers are told to transcribe exactly what they SEE and not
what someone thinks it ought to be! Remember the maxim that "an enumerator's error is not
an error" and you should never try to correct what is clearly an enumerator's error based on
some other information you may possess. All you can do is add a note of annotation in your records, clearly explaining why you think something is incorrect.
Individuals and families moved about in Victorian times far more than we imagine and the
likelihood of finding people at the same address in successive censuses is not high. Often
you may find someone has moved many miles away for work purposes. Occupations
particularly susceptible to this were railway workers, commercial travellers, merchants, seamen and fishermen, and so on – even agricultural labourers who may have left the land to go and find work in factories in a town.
And then there´s the fact that sometimes our ancestors told fibs, varying from little white lies
to whopping great big ones! Perhaps they´d told a lie to their spouse about their age and had
to maintain it, or possibly there was a more sinister reason - like someone in authority was
looking for them. I've come across a number of cases where the name has changed
altogether but one can still tell from the family pattern (children's names, ages, birthplaces
etc) that it was the same family. Some people elevated their social situation in the censuses.
There may be other reasons why ages and birth places can differ in censuses. Many people
genuinely didn´t know precisely how old they were, particularly if they´d been born before
1837. Or they might give their birth place as a village in one census and the nearest town in
another, sometimes different places altogether. Maybe they thought they'd been born in a
particular place and, by the time of the next census, they'd found out they were actually born
somewhere else. Some gave the name of the earliest place they could remember living in,
which might not have been where they were born at all.
How can you break down these brick walls when searching the online censuses?
There´s a family historian´s motto that says "Less is more". What this means is that it is
possible to enter too much information into the search fields, especially if you´ve ticked the
"exact" box. If just one detail is wrong, then you may well not find your ancestor. To solve the
problem try these things...
1. Uncheck the "exact match only" box.
2. Try variant surnames and allow soundex and/or phonetic matches, using every
variant you can think of.
3. Use wildcards. Use only some of the surname and an asterisk to allow the search
engine to fill in the rest. The drawback to this approach is that you may return too many
results. In these cases you may have to gradually add information a bit at a time to eliminate
some of them.
4. Omit the surname altogether. It´s surprising how often this can work! I often try
entering just a forename or forenames, an approximate age and birth place and you may be
fortunate enough to find your ancestor appearing in a surname that has become seriously
garbled, either in the original census or in the transcription, but which you can recognise by
the forenames of the spouse and children.
5. If you can´t find an individual with his/her family, consider that they might have been
living away from home in service; in an institution, such as a school, hospital, workhouse,
prison or asylum; gone into the army or navy and serving abroad or in a military
establishment somewhere; working overseas. Don't forget to look for them in shipping lists
and other resources.
6. Always look at the neighbours and up and down the street. In Victorian times when
homes were seriously over-crowded, some families often "farmed out" some of the kids to
other family members like uncles and aunts, cousins and even neighbours who weren't
7. Has the missing person you're looking for died/got married/gone abroad/changed
their name, etc, etc.
8. Read the help and advice sections at Findmypast, Ancestry, etc, thoroughly before starting out on your search. These give very similar advice to that I have given above.
9. ALWAYS check to see whether there are what Findmypast calls "Known issues" in the
censuses. For instance, there are missing pages, missing piece numbers and other known
problems. I was recently looking for people I thought ought to be in the parish of Malpas,
the parish were
damaged (and many
recovered) pages in the
10. Are there alternative records that can be checked? A good source, especially if your
ancestor was from a gentry, ecclesiastical or land-owning family or a tradesman, is to look at
directories around the time of the census (though of course they won't normally name other
members of the family). Also land and house records, though this will rarely apply to a humble working family.
11. Many men are absent from the 1901 census because they were fighting in the Second
Boer War in
12. Several thousand women are missing from the 1911 census because they were suffragettes and deliberately refused to have themselves put down on the schedule, or absented themselves from the household on census night to avoid being counted, in protest at the government’s refusal to allow them the vote.
13. Forenames can be as much of a problem as surnames! Sometimes nicknames or pet
names were used, especially for children, and forenames often got reversed. For instance,
my wife's grandfather (as above) was born at Stratford-on-Avon in 1878 as William John
Troth and appears as such
in the 1911 census in that name in
appears on FreeBMD in
mother, now aged 101 who appears in 1911 as being 2 months old, swears he was always
known to the family as "John Willie". So if you can't find someone with an advanced search,
try reversing the forenames and/or initials.
vein, pet names and nicknames are often found in the censuses. Was your
ancestor whose forename was
14. If you still can’t find an ancestor, can you find other family members based on your searches in an earlier census? Perhaps this will give you a clue.
15. Above all, use your imagination and persevere!
© Roy Stockdill, Hertfordshire, 2012.