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Is it possible to access free UK census indexes?

It is, but there are some drawbacks… But, did you know that the UK has its own free census project, which has been running now for about nine years? You can access the completed census indexes free. More information later…

You can also look at alternative sites to Ancestry that may be cheaper if you don’t want the full range of data they provide… Did you know that The Genealogist, in association with S&N Genealogy have been running census indexing projects in the last few years? You can access indexes to all 1841 -1901 censuses for a monthly fee of £4.66, or buy a pay-as-you-go subscription for £5, using your credits for looking at the data you want. More information later… 

But first, an introduction to those who are perhaps new to family history.

An introduction to census indexes and searching

Today, it is possible to access the census data for England and Wales for the 1841 census, the 1851 census, the 1861 census, the 1871 census, the 1881 census, the 1891 census, the 1901 census and the 1911 census online via Ancestry. However, there is a price to pay and the indexing is not very good in parts. Findmypast also has access to all the censuses. Bothy sites have their good and bad points and it is really dependant upon what and how you want to search which determines which would be more suitable.

It is always possible to visit local record offices to see the original census pages on microfilm or microfiche, but this is no good if you live in Australia! Family history societies are also a good source of census indexes, but you might easily find that the place you are interested in has not been done yet.

The UK FreeCEN free census project

For people who want to access free census information via the internet, a little-known project is being run by FreeCEN, a project that is connected with the much more famous FreeBMD and FreeREG.

The FreeCEN project began in 1999, with only a handful of volunteer transcribers. By December 2000, 125 people were contributing and by July 2005, this had grown to well over 2000.

The project is not very well funded, and is hosted by a basic and probably free website, but the information that it provides is no less useful for that. The free Scotland census data that is available is the most complete with coverage of the 1841 Scottish census for Aberdeenshire, Argyllshire, Angus, Banffshire, Bute, Caithness, Dumfrieshire, East Lothian, Invernesshire, Kircardineshire, Kinrosshire, Midlothian, Morayshire, Nairn, Peebleshire, Ross and Cromarty, Roxburghshire, Selkirkshire and Wigtownshire completely indexed. Other Scottish regions are nearly complete, as of April 2008, but only the English counties of Cornwall and Warwickshire have been completed, with few others started as yet.

The state of coverage for the Scottish 1851 census index is similar, although not quite so many counties have indexes that have been completed.

For the 1861 free census index, progress is more patchy, with less coverage for the Scotland 1861 census, but with more English counties covered. There is 100% coverage for the census index for Banffshire, Bute, East Lothian only, but there is partial coverage for the Channel Islands, Cumberland, Denbighshire (Welsh free census project), Devon (over 70%), Dorset, County Durham (over 40%), the East Riding of Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Middlesex, Northumberland, Norfolk, the North Riding of Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Sussex, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire, Worcestershire and the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Cornwall is the only county covered in the free census index for 1881, but this reflects the fact that this census is available via the Church of the Latter Day Saints, on CDROM.

In 1891, the free census index is available for several English and Scottish counties, with full coverage available for Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Devon and Warwickshire.

No data is available for the 1901 census, but this is available on a pay per view site supplied by The National Archives, and the access to the free 1901 census index can be gained without payment. This applies only when you want to access the image.

To find out more about volunteering as a transcriber to provide free census data, or about how the project is organised, visit this part of the FreeCEN site. It is the most recently updated and contains contact email addresses.

The census index project by The Genealogist

S&N Genealogy have been producing census data discs, CDROMs with the digitised images of all the census data from 1841 to 1901 for several years, and these are sold by counties. When the discs were first produced, finding who you were looking for took time, as each image had to be searched individually by eye. Still, it was more convenient than having to travel to a local record office, or to London to look at the same images on microfilm or microfiche!

Shortly after the first discs were produced, people began to transcribe and submit indexes and these have now been compiled into an online resource by The Genealogist.

The Genealogist has grown into a much expanded online site now, offering researchers the chance to access not only census indexes, but also the birth, marriage and death indexes of the General Record Office (GRO).

All the census indexes are available from 1841 to 1901 and the site also provides full transcripts, which are really useful if you get a hard to read entry. All the indexes have been checked, and there are also parish records, data from trade directories and land owner records.

On their site, you can do a limited free search, but then, to look at data, you need to subscribe with a payment. You can go for the all-inclusive monthly deal, currently £4.66 per month, which allows you to access all the records as often as you like within one month, or the pay per view option. For a fee of £5 you can use credits up to view the data that you are most interested in. As a guide, for this you get 50 credits, and viewing a page of a census (digitised image) costs 3 units. Other records, including transcripts are one unit.

There are also premium and professional packages that are more expensive, going up to £12.50 per month, which is on a par with an annual Ancestry or Findmypast subscription, although, to be fair the latter sites probably have a lot more records.

The Genealogist site may be useful if you are wanting to access an alternative census index, free or fairly cheaply, but it is wise to explore the site first, to make sure that your choice is the most cost effective for what you want.

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