The 1901 census

The complete 1901 census for England and Wales published on the Internet on 2 January has to be one of the most ambitious projects of its kind undertaken by the Public Records Office [PRO].

Information about the population of the United Kingdom has been collected every ten years since 1801. The information given in census returns is used to generate statistics about the population in general and assists the Government in planning public services.

Containing over 32 million records showing names, address, occupations, family relationships and mental health details, the 1901 Census promises to give the chance for family historians to discover more of their family roots. One cannot underestimate its value as a resource for genealogical, local and demographic research.

Under the “100-year rule” enforced to protect individual privacy it is only now that the PRO can release the 1901 records that are so eagerly awaited by researchers. This is the first time it has been made available online and is obviously a boon to those unable to visit Record Offices in the UK. [The 1891 Census currently on microfiche is expected to be ‘digitised’ and made available online by Spring 2003.]

The Census taken on 31 March 1901, several weeks after the death of Queen Victoria, gives an amazing insight into life at the turn of the last century. The population of England and Wales, at that time estimated at 32.5 million, means we are talking a vast amount of information.

However, some family details you may not want to know! The Edwardian “non-PC” census takers also recorded the mental health of over 90,000 who they categorised as “lunatics, imbeciles and feeble-minded people”.

In addition, the records show over 70,000 people counted on merchant sea-going ships, inland barges as well as naval vessels. Knowing the name of the vessel allows you to search that specific area. Still, a word of warning: address searches are still unavailable in this initial launch. However, the PRO expects them to be available in the early part of the year.

Unfortunately, not everything has been going smoothly. Alison Webster, the project manager, told the London Daily Telegraph:

“The census returns are our most popular documents and making them available on the Internet means that anyone can access information on their ancestors, the history of their house and their local area.”

So why did they underestimate the number of visitors attempting to gain access to the site in its first two days? In the initial few hours over a million people attempted to search the records. The system could not cope and at one point 1.2 million people tried to log on simultaneously, many believed to be from the USA and Australia. The Public Record Office partners in the project, QinetiQ, expect a resolution of the access problems soon. Meanwhile, you will have to wait long and patiently online before you can reach this valuable, exciting and groundbreaking wealth of information. For those with patience the site can be found at

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