So, here’s the background: I was trying to help solve a small mystery posted on a LinkedIn group. I spent some time scrolling through the 1851 census on Ancestry at the weekend, but yesterday I started Googling for other options to see if perhaps we were dealing with an Ancestry mistranscription that was correct elsewhere.
I was specifically looking for census transcriptions for the areas they were living in, to see if we could check out their last known addresses and future know addresses – it’s notoriously hard to work by address on Ancestry, as it takes ages to find the right page.
However, what I found was www.ukcensusonline.co.uk, which popped up in the advertisements at the top of Google’s search. I thought I’d try it, since it claimed free access. It doesn’t do what I wanted to, but it is really very helpful.
The great thing about this census website is that you initially just pick a census year and search on a name. What you get is a basic, easy-to-read list including the following: forename, surname, age, occupation, county, estimated year of birth and place of birth. You can then ‘select a record set’, which basically allows you to filter by county. The numbers of the name in each county are given in brackets alongside.
I know it sounds fairly standard, but in fact it’s brilliant as an ‘at-a-glance’ tool.
On Ancestry you have to hover over each search result to get the crucial details, and often you can’t find the occupation without going into the image itself. Here it’s given to you up-front, which it makes it so much easier to locate the right person when we’re dealing with common names. In this respect it definitely trumps Ancestry.
UK census online also ‘wildcards’ the search (unless you ask it not to), as does Ancestry. But because their basic search doesn’t include any other criteria, what you get is a comprehensive list of possibilities with all their basic data there at a glance. And because it isn’t attempting to then organise your results by relevance, you’re not likely to miss anyone out.
I often find myself frustrated by Ancestry’s search, because if you put in multiple details, for example place and date of birth, it may bring up people born around the right time in the wrong place as more likely matches than someone who is born in exactly the right place but their birth date is out by a few years, or vice versa. Using UK census online’s basic search you get a simple list of possibilities, and it’s left to your brain as opposed to the computer to identify the right one.
The option to easily filter by county makes it easier to whittle down your options and perhaps check multiple locations without having to restart your search. It would also be a useful tool for finding out where specific surnames were most common at any given time, for example, so as to give you an idea where to conduct your search if you were completely clueless about location.
Of course, you could just search by name on Ancestry as well, but then the results aren’t so easy to scroll through, so you wouldn’t necessarily make your life any easier. One of the key strengths of this website is the very clear column-style layout of the list you get, which you can just run your eye down.
The limitations of this site are, firstly that you have to subscribe in order to be able to access the record from this search and to be able to conduct a more detailed search. As I haven’t subscribed (as yet – I’ll see how useful I find it), I can’t tell you how well the detailed search function works or what the standard of the images is.
Of course, without being able to click into the record, it’s harder to spot possibly mistranscribed people – for example if you had struggled to find someone on ancestry, but here you thought you had spotted them by their occupation but their age was wrong, you wouldn’t easily be able to check the original image. You would have to go and search for them on Ancestry or wherever and hope that they had the same error. And if it’s a transcription error you’re trying to confirm, you can’t be sure that you’re going to find them, because they may not have made the same one. Hopefully you’d have enough info from the record to search by, but what if other errors have been made? I suppose that if this particular situation arose I’d end up subscribing just to get the access I wanted, but it’s not really ideal financially. I’d prefer the credits option, like you used to get on the old 1911 census.
The other issue is identifying family members; again, you need record access to do this – though the same can generally be said of any website you’re not subscribing to, of course. With the original 1911 census, if I knew of household members I was expecting to find, but didn’t want to pay for the record, I would just search for them and see if there were matching possibilities in the same location as my original – easy enough if you’re looking for unusual names, but perhaps tricky otherwise.
I can tell you, however, that finding the answer to the above mystery (sadly a ‘no’, the person we were searching for doesn’t seem to be there) took me about ten minutes of scrolling through the results list, compared to an hour or so of flicking through the possibilities using various different combinations of search criteria on Ancestry – talk about a timesaver!
This site will be my go-to at-a-glance census searcher in future; I urge you to check it out and see if it can help you out too!