Please Release Me…

…being a very brief history of the releases of the English & Welsh census returns.

We need to understand right from the start that the primary purpose of the census has never been to produce a resource for the benefit of family historians. It may sometimes seem that way, but the aim has always been to gather statistical data about the state of the nation. The fact that, since 1841, the legislation behind the censuses has included instructions to record the names and other details of the individual inhabitants of the country – and that those returns have (largely) survived – is merely our good fortune.

It took a long time for public interest in the census returns to grow. One of the driving forces behind the eventual release of the 1841 and 1851 returns was the introduction of Old Age Pensions in 1908. Realising that those who were born before 1837 might have no legal record of their birth, the Registrar General had allowed limited access to claimants who needed proof of age. But it wasn’t until the recently-formed Society of Genealogists started to exert pressure on the government, that the enumeration books were made openly available in 1912, for a fee (and only to those in possession of a ‘Student’s Ticket’, issued on the recommendation of a ‘person of recognised position’), at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Chancery Lane.

View of the Public Record Office, Chancery Lane.
Henry William Brewer (1895)

The fees were eventually abolished in 1952 and a project to microfilm the returns (in association with the Church of Latter Day Saints) began in 1956 but the next major event in the story was the release of the 1861 census returns – which didn’t happen until November 1962.

In 1968 a new census reading room was opened in the Land Registry building in Portugal Street, just around the corner from the main PRO building in Chancery Lane and this is where we accessed the census returns (now exclusively on microfilm) until 1991.

The 1871 and 1881 censuses were released to the public in 1972 and 1982 respectively and the microfilms were by now accompanied by street indexes covering the larger towns.

Also from 1972, the Registrar General began to offer limited searches in the 1881, 1891 and 1901 census, through which the ages and places of birth of named individuals at specified addresses would be provided – again, for a fee.

A lot of indexing work, particularly with the 1851 census, had been carried out by local and family history societies over the years but in 1985 a far more ambitious project was launched. With the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Federation of Family History Societies (now the Family History Federation) at the helm, the aim of the project was to produce a comprehensive index to the recently-released 1881 census returns. The project was completed in 1996 and, in many ways, changed the landscape of family history research in this country.

Meanwhile, the 1891 census returns had been released in January 1992, with the PRO moving its census reading rooms back into the main building in Chancery Lane. The returns were released for the first time on microfiche but the primary means of access was still a set of paper finding aids, including the now traditional street indexes for the larger towns and cities.

This was all to change with the release of the 1901 census. The PRO took the ground-breaking decision to release the returns digitally, online and, lacking the financial resources to do the work ‘in house’, entered into a partnership with a commercial company. This, remember, was before the days of Ancestry, Findmypast and the other major commercial genealogical websites and we were very much entering into the unknown as far as projects of this kind were concerned.

I say ‘we’ because, by now, I was working for the PRO at the then recently-opened Family Records Centre (FRC) in Myddleton Street, Clerkenwell. The decision had been made to provide free onsite access to the returns (along with the relevant paper finding aids) at the Public Record Office’s building in Kew (Chancery Lane had closed in 1996) with access to the online system provided (on a pay-per-view basis) on computers at the FRC, as well as (in theory at least!) at home on your own PC, 24 hours a day.

The site of the former Family Records Centre

I won’t say too much about the reality of the big launch on 2 January 2002 – let’s just say that it was – eventually! – a success, but that it took about ten months for it all to get up and running smoothly.

The pattern of releasing the decennial censuses in the January after the 100th anniversary of the returns had been well established (since the release of the 1871 census anyway) but now, as the result of a Freedom of Information request in 2006, the government ordered that the 1911 census returns should be released as soon as feasible, ‘with the exception of that considered to be sensitive personal information’.

Accordingly, the partially-redacted returns were made available online from January 2009 on a pay-per-view basis. The project was completed the following year. Access to the 1911 census was free onsite at Kew as well as at seven other institutions around the country: for the first time, there was no physical/microform access to the returns.

Much the same approach was taken with the 1921 census release yesterday. This was the first census return to be taken under the terms of the 1920 Census Act which specified that the records should be closed for 100 years and therefore protected them from any potential challenge under the Freedom of Information Act.

In every case since the release of the 1861 census in 1962, the PRO (now the National Archives) has made the returns available free of charge onsite. This is what they’ve done this time by providing free online access at Kew. And since the release of the 1901 census, we’ve had the additional opportunity to access the returns online from the comfort of our own homes – for a fee.

It would be great if we lived in a world where a benevolent government saw fit to make the returns available online free of charge as a public service – but I suspect that there might be an outcry from people who have no interest in family history (yes, such people exist!) and questions might be asked about where the funding was coming from. So, back in the real world, we have to accept that the National Archives, as custodians of the records, have to get into bed with a commercial partner to allow them to deliver this added value service. And we have to accept that that commercial partner will want to cover and recoup the not-inconsiderable costs involved in making the records – fully indexed and digitised – available to us all.

In the fulness of time, as was the case with the 1901 and 1911 censuses, and with the 1939 National Register (“like a census but not a census” © Audrey Collins), the 1921 census returns will, no doubt, become part of the standard subscription packages on Findmypast and (I haven’t read the contract so I don’t know when this will happen) will almost certainly be made available via Ancestry and other providers.

In the meantime, I don’t personally think that £3.50 is a particularly excessive fee. Most of us probably don’t have more than about ten families to look for and we’d probably be happy to spend £35 on a night out (remember those?). Or, we have the choice of visiting the National Archives at Kew, the Manchester Central Library or the National Library of Wales where we can access the returns for free and download images to our heart’s content! Or we can just wait…

The 1921 census for England and Wales is available online at:

Further reading: Diary of a Genalogist by Anthony J Camp

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 7 January 2022

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6 Responses to Please Release Me…

  1. Pingback: Transcripts and indexes | Lifelines Research

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. There’s been so much negativity, it’s nice to see someone explain in depth how the census records have been released before and the costs too. I thought the whole thing about being a family historian was dusting off the ol’ Sherlock Holmes hat and doing some detective work rather than a swimsuit to dive in without checking the waters first.


  3. Gillian Stevens says:

    Unfortunately it appears that we are becoming a nation of complaints. It seems that it does not matter what the subject is, whether it is free or paid for, lots and lots of people will complain. We are so lucky that we have a company like Findmypast that is prepared to put the money upfront to get the records scanned, transcribed and available to us on our computers at home. The cost to produce is millions and we must not complain about the cost we need to pay to purchase an image or transcript because they need to recover their costs so that they can then work on other datasets that we would like to view. Even now in the very early days following the release they are allowing us to get quite a bit of information for free I am sure that if we wait a little while then the info will be available via our own subscription or a subscription available via our local libraries, family history societies and other organisations.

    I have spent a lovely couple of days exploring the 2021 census, I did not spend any money on transcripts or images but instead was able to use the search engine including the great advance search to collect a lot of info about my ancestors and also the people that were in the same household. Yes I found lots of misspellings, but with some lateral thinking and extensive use of the advance search managed to find virtually everyone that was an ancestor of mine or a close relative (such as aunts, great aunts, cousins and so on). Luckily I have fairly unusual surnames. I am also doing a small one name study and have almost collected all of those that I know of that were in family households, more research needs to be done to find others that are living alone or in another household (servants, borders, lodgers and so on) where I need more information other than what is available for free. The next step is to decide which of my ancestors and/or relatives I would like to purchase an image for to discover more about them plus which ones (mainly those in my one name study or who are not direct ancestors) that I will decide to wait until they become part of a normal subscription. I would love to purchase all the images now but unfortunately my pension does not allow for that. Perhaps if the virus becomes less of a threat I will treat myself to a day at Kew in the summer.


  4. Glenys SYKES says:

    Are there any truly free hobbies? If people pay out to play golf, buy expensive gear for sport/riding/cycling, go to the gym, buy artist materials, yarn, plants, books, computer games, etc etc, to satisfy their interests why should family historians expect every record to be available free?
    When I started researching in 1980, the only way to access records was to travel to the area I was researching, (100+ mile round trip at the time), find parking and then sit in a library or record office, hoping I could find everything I needed in the time available, taking pencil notes and before computers were available to ordinary folk to search or record with, using card indices, creating paper charts of my ancestors, paper records only for the information gathered. The internet was not yet invented.
    Having reached the limits of the resources easily available to me, with a young family, full time job and not living in my area of interest, I took a few year’s break from researching before much became available online.
    I was astounded and thrilled, when my archivist daughter persuaded me to start up again a few years ago, to discover the riches now at my fingertips. The printed copy of the parish registers for my home parish which I used to study fervently during those library visits, now resides in digital form on my computer (at the cost of a very reasonable few pounds to the Society which digitised them) and is searchable. Need a contemporary map of the area to check something? A few clicks and there it is on the screen. During lockdowns, it has been very rewarding to be able to sit in my cosy study, reading 17th century parish registers for Gloucester city churches online via Ancestry with all their other facilities and records for the cost of a fancy coffee a week. Several of my longstanding brick walls have crumbled thanks to the material and computerised search facilities available online now. But making them available has a cost and I appreciate that those costs have to be recouped.
    As Nicola says above, for most people, immediate access is not really necessary for a large number of records, most experienced researchers I know were perfectly well aware that there would initially be a charge for access to the records, just as there was for earlier releases and prioritised what they really needed immediately. And for records I really need urgently – none in my case at the moment – I can buy an awful lot of the digital originals online from FMP for the cost of a two hundred mile round trip to read them free at Kew!


  5. DM Walsh says:

    Terrific summary Dave, from one who knows.


  6. Nicola Byrnes says:

    Hear hear! I took part in two online discussions yesterdays about the release – the FMP one and the Family History Magazine one (saw you there!) – and was appalled at (and embarrassed by) the moaning and ingratitude voiced by a number of people about the cost. Why, suddenly, do they expect free access to such a major resource that cost so much to conserve and get into a state to release to the public? You don’t have to subscribe to FMP to search and download, and, frankly, I seriously doubt that immediate access to the 1921 census is a matter of life and death to anyone – we’ve waited 100 years for this one, another couple of years to wait for costs to reduce is no real hardship.

    Glad to get that off my chest! Keep up the good work!


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