Printed and online indexes of the census are very much commonplace now if you are willing to pay a fee. Companies like Ancestry and Findmypast have online indexes of all the available census returns and other companies such as Origin have some available and are working on others. Transcripts are also available of local areas through family history societies and private enterprise. The National Archives can let you search the indexes if you visit them as will most Record offices. The online indexes have been a great boon to those looking for ancestors but can also be most frustrating at times.
One of the most annoying aspects of using an online index is knowing that an ancestor should be in a census return but not being able to find them. There are a variety of reasons why that ancestor may not be found and I will start by setting out some of those reasons.
It is quite possible that an ancestor may not appear on a census as they may have opposed the idea of the census and refused to take part.
There were also not enough enumerators to properly cover the entirety of England and Wales and because of this not all the homes were visited. It is also quite possible that an ancestor spent some time overseas and would therefore have missed the date the census was taken.
A lot of institutions such as workhouses did not put the full name of people in their care and instead would just give the initials. This means that a great deal of searching would be needed to find this ancestor.
A number of census returns went missing particularly in 1841 and 1851, as the household returns were destroyed there is no record left of ancestors in these areas.
Secondly, an ancestor may be on the census but due to errors caused by the enumerator they have not appeared correctly on the indexes. Enumerators were stretched to get their job done and as such many errors would creep in as they copied household returns. Many householders were illiterate and could not fill in the return properly or filled it incorrectly which would then be transcribed by the enumerator. In some cases the enumerator would try to fill in missing information through the use of their own local knowledge if they had any. Those without local knowledge would assume that details had been filled in correctly and copy them on their own returns. The enumerators used blue pencils to fill in their returns. These faded over time and in some cases made the indexing difficult. The poor handwriting of some enumerators also made transcribing the returns difficult and correct information would be transcribed incorrectly. The marks made by enumerators to signal different tally’s on their returns also sometimes obscured their own work making transcription difficult and leading to errors in the online indexes.
When companies transcribe the census there is ample opportunities for many errors to be made. Transcribers can quite easily make mistakes due to their own fault, the fault of their equipment or because the images they are transcribing from are of a poor quality.
Learning how to search the indexes properly online will enable the finding of an ancestor to be faster and easier. There are a number of reasons why you may not find an ancestor on the first search of an online index and I will try to address these and offer solutions.
The main reasons why it is difficult to locate ancestors through the census returns online are because
Census records are incomplete and flawed
Information you are using to locate ancestors is wrong or incomplete
Electronic indexes contain errors resulting from transcription.
The name of an ancestor is usually the first thing that is used to locate them on an online database. However, there are a couple of reasons why it may be difficult to locate them using this. Firstly, the wrong information may be written down by the enumerator, due to them reading the information provided wrongly or transcribing a householders surname wrongly. Names which can be spelled in different ways such as Smith or Smyth can also be entered wrongly by the enumerator. Secondly, when the enumerator’s returns were being transcribed more errors could have been introduced into the information.