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Genealogy Section







Census Returns


Go to '1851' to find the complete 2% cover carried out on the 1851 Census. It is available as downloadable .zip files for the whole of the UK. Ayrshire also has viewable files for the towns covered.

Census returns are one of the most useful and informative of genealogical record sources. For each person in a household, they can contain details of name, age, occupation, and birthplace, and in all but the earliest censuses, relationship to the head of the household is also included. Census information can lead to earlier generations, solve particularly thorny problems, and paint a vivid picture of a community. 

Two terms require definition. Great Britain refers to England, Scotland, and Wales. It is not the same thing as the United Kingdom (UK). That came into existence in 1801 when the Parliament in Dublin was done away with and Irish representatives were elected to the House of Commons at Westminster. The UK today is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. 

Great Britain

The census was a long time in coming. The first debates on the subject occurred during the 1750s, but the idea was controversial, and although the initiative received enough support in the House of Commons, the House of Lords rejected it. Two arguments were strongly expressed--either the census would severely impair individual freedom or it would give information about national weaknesses to Britain's enemies. The debate continued. Attempts were made to determine the population from hearth and window tax returns. Opinions were expressed as to whether the population was rising or falling and whether the nation was able to feed itself. The most influential publication was the "Essay on the Principle of Population" by Thomas Malthus, which appeared in 1798. Malthus was among those urging that a national census be taken. The public debate and a series of bad harvests in the 1790s helped to influence opinions, and the Census Bill passed successfully in 1800. 

The first census was taken in 1801, and others have occurred every ten years since, except 1941. In the first census, and through three more to 1831, the person designated as the local census taker in each English and Welsh parish was the overseer of the poor; in each Scottish parish, it was the schoolmaster. These census takers were required to find out how many males and females were in the district, and to obtain some information about classes of occupations.

For the government, there were two main objectives: to determine the population of Great Britain and to find out whether the population was rising or falling. In 1801, church ministers were required to provide reports on the numbers of marriages since 1754 and on baptisms and burials recorded in their registers since 1700. Subsequent reports concerned the years since the last census. The method of collecting information remained much the same through four censuses. None of these was a list of all inhabitants at each address, however, some enthusiastic enumerators did list more than heads of household. Once the statistical analysis was complete and the report made to Parliament, the returns were destroyed (although some fragments survive).

The format changed in 1841. Responsibility for the census moved to the General Register Office, which had been set up in 1837 to collect the details of births, marriages, and deaths in England and Wales. The country was therefore already divided into registration districts and sub-districts, and these were further divided into enumeration districts, which contained twenty-five to two hundred people.

A system of civil registration was established in Scotland in 1855, and in 1860 responsibility for the Scottish census was transferred to this office.

It was a major undertaking to ensure that the census was recorded without duplication, which meant conducting it in the shortest possible amount of time. The local enumerator left a census form at each household several days in advance of census night. These were later collected, and the enumerator would interview a member of the household when collecting the form if no one had been able to complete it. The process did not change much in the subsequent returns. The enumerator then copied the information on the forms into registers, which eventually found their way to London for processing. It is these registers that have been filmed and made available for public viewing. The instructions to enumerators were clear: no one who was present on census night at a particular address could be left out of the tally, and no person absent from home could be written in. Each person was to be enumerated in his or her location on census night. This is important because many people will not show up in the list of the family at home on census night. Some reasons why people were not enumerated at home include being away at work (e.g., sailors), visiting nearby, caring for a sick relation, or traveling. There were other exceptions as well. Those in charge of institutions made lists of their personnel or inmates, in some cases using initials only, in others, surnames with first initial. The lists usually appear at the end of the appropriate district. And finally, ships were listed according to where they were in port on census night.

Each enumerator wrote a description of his or her district. This is important information, often bypassed by genealogists. The account provides a detailed description of the area and may include names of small farms and businesses. The information here can be used with a large-scale map to precisely locate the home of an ancestor. In some situations, this information is essential when sorting out the boundaries of districts in towns and cities. Search problems occur because it may not be realized that a long road can cross through two or more districts, or that the census taker may go along a street, down side streets, cross the road, or come back another way. Descriptions help sort this out. 


Apart from minor differences in supplementary details, the census returns for 1851 through 1901 provide the following:

  • Address or location

  • Name of each person in the household

  • Marital status

  • Sex

  • Relationship to the head of the household

  • Age

  • Occupation

  • Birthplace

However, the first nominal census (1841) is different and less informative. Missing from these returns are relationships, accurate ages, and precise birthplace details. What they record is:  

  • Address or location

  • Name of each person in the household

  • Age rounded down to the nearest five years for adults (this confused people and compounded fibs)

  • Exact age for children under 15

  • Occupation

  • A vague answer to the question "were you born in the county?" which in England meant noting Y (yes), N (no), S (Scotland), I (Ireland), Pts (foreign parts)

Several clues distinguish one household from another: hash marks made by the enumerators (when at the left edge of a name, a double backslash is a new building and a single one separates family units in the same building); 1851 and after, a new number in the extreme left column (No. of Householder's Schedule); 1851 and after, the appearance of the word "Head" in the Relationship column.


Genealogists consult census returns for information about families—family members' relationships, ages and birthplaces in particular. The first census return comes four years after the start of civil registration in England and Wales (1 July 1837) and fourteen years before it starts in Scotland (1855), so it is obvious that census information (in particular, age and birthplace) can facilitate the search for certificates of birth, marriage and death. It follows that the converse is true, and that date and place information on a certificate lead to the census. Going back and forth between these two records—following ancestors through stages of their lives—is standard methodology.

Another obvious use of census returns is as a launch pad into church registers. If the information about age and birthplace has been tracked through two or three census returns and found consistent, then the transfer is that much easier. Where that information is inconsistent (there are examples of individuals giving, in four enumerations, four different places as a birthplace), then maps, gazetteers, and references to lists of parishes may sort it out; or it may be necessary to search in more than one place.

The clue to the place of origin of a family may not come directly from the ancestor and the immediate family. Others resident at the same address but of no recorded relationship—servants and apprentices in particular—may originate from the same region as the family’s previous generation.

Census information offers much more than basic genealogical facts. When the enumeration district is examined and further reference is made to maps, local history books, old photographs, or drawings, a vivid sense of the community and neighbourhood can be recreated.


All of the British census books have been microfilmed. Copies are in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and available for loan to Family History Centers. The county archives and local libraries have collections for their own areas. Each of the three national repositories holds complete collections: the Family Records Centre in London, the National Library of Wales, and the General Register Office for Scotland.
  And of course they are now online .

When you know an ancestor lived in a particular parish throughout his or her lifetime, the appropriate film can be found through reference to the Family History Library Catalogue under Country>County>Parish>Census, and then it can be ordered on loan. Difficulties arise when this information is not known, when ancestors lived in large cities, or when families moved about. In these instances, indexes may help, addresses might be found in other records, or the search must be expanded in a methodical way. 



Common names can be a problem. Selecting the proper connection will require additional information, such as occupation or names of others in the household (preferably someone with an unusual Christian name), as well as a pretty good idea of age and birthplace.

If you have problems with the spelling and pronunciation of a name, you can guess that the enumerators did too, which may mean that a name beginning with one letter is actually written with another. This may have something to do with handwriting or with speech. There are no quick answers for this, just imagination and careful searching, or a handy collateral relation who can be found.

If a place isn't there, the records may indeed be lost, but do not accept this explanation without some research. What sort of a place name is it? It may be too small to be an enumeration district. Perhaps you are using the name of an ecclesiastical parish rather than a civil parish. Reference to maps and gazetteers should sort this out. On the Web, try the alphabetical place name list for England at GENUKI. If you are in the midst of a search in the right area, read the enumerator's descriptions and the returns for the adjacent areas.

In cities, the street index references are an important aid; however, they refer to the piece numbers assigned by the PRO and are sometimes a challenge to match to LDS census film numbers. Map work may help, but there have been many street name changes—London and Glasgow are good examples. A Guide to Glasgow Addresses (S. Miller, Glasgow and West of Scotland FHS, 1993) and the two-volume Index to Abolished London Street Names found at the Family Records Centre in London are two possible routes to a solution.

The wise researcher is always willing to consider that the starting point is a fib, or only partly true. Searching for siblings and other relations is one alternative; another is to extend search boundaries of time and place. Other records, e.g., voter's lists, vital records, church records, or probate records, may add facts to help sort out the problem.


1841 to 1901 Census Returns are available online for a small fee at Scotlandspeople


What's to come? 

UK Census Online

"Bringing YOUR ancestors to YOU, free of charge!"


This project aims to provide a "free-to-view" online searchable database of the 19th century UK census returns. It is part of FreeUKGEN, an initiative aimed at helping make high quality primary (or near-primary) records of relevance to UK genealogy conveniently and freely available online, in a coherent, easy to access and search, information retrieval system. (Other projects associated with the FreeUKGEN initiative are FreeBMD and FreeREG). 

Search the Database


This project is part of the larger UK Free Census Project (aka FreeCEN). For more information on this project and how to get involved, please read the Project FAQ. For information about becoming a transcriber, please contact me, Jennifer Gribble, at jgribble@speakeasy.org.


David Wills has a great reference site where he has details of the Census Details

Available on LDS Films

CLICK HERE to bring up his Census Films Page in a new window.

Ayrshire Census Returns


There were several Census Recordings carried out in Ayrshire in the period up to the start of the formal returns in 1841. As information is obtained on any of these 'early' census, it will be added to this page. 

'Early Returns'

Landsborough 1820 - 1840 Stevenston

1821 - St Quivox

1820 - Irvine  Index

The Census registers are currently available for research for the following years :-

1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891 and 1901

 The census consists of details of all the occupants of households on a particular night in the census year. They are arranged by addresses within civil parishes. The appropriate census date for each year is as follows :-

1841 7th June 1841
1851 31st March 1851
1861 8th April 1861
1871 3rd April 1871
1881 4th April 1881
1891 5th April 1891
1901   1st April 1901


Each census is different - with less information in the 1841 census - but generally the information includes name, relationship to head of household, age, occupation, marital status, and birthplace.

Adult ages in 1841 census year those aged 15 or over may have been rounded down to the nearest 5.

Full Listing of All Census Return Dates  Tuesday 10th March 1801,  Monday 27th May 1811,  Monday 28th May, 1821,  Monday 30th May 1831,  Monday 7th June 1841,  Monday 31st March 1851, Monday 8th April 1861,  Monday 3rd April 1871, Monday 4th April 1881, Monday 5th April 1891, Monday 1st April 1901,  Monday 3rd April 1911,  Monday 25th April 1921,  Monday 27th April 1931,  1941 Cancelled,  Monday 9th April 1951,  Monday 24th April 1961,  Monday 10th October 1966,  Monday 26th April 1971,  Monday 6th April 1981,  Monday 22nd April 1991,  Monday 30th April 2001

Sources in Ayrshire:-

Ayrshire Rootsweb Members Census Transcriptions

Downloadable .Doc or .Zip files containing Individual Surname - Census data


Index to the 1841 Ayrshire Census

Largs and District Family History Society has indexed Largs and Fairly

Database Index to the 1851 Ayrshire Census

The database index to the 1851 Ayrshire Census was listed by volunteers and co-ordinated by the Glasgow and West of Scotland FHS. The database provides speedy access to brief details of everyone living in Ayrshire in 1851. The database, on computer, gives names and ages, then information of parishes, book, page and line numbers allowing the full entry details to be found quickly on the census films.

Held by the Dick Institute Reference Library on the Local Studies PC.

Held by the Baird Institute

Held by the Carnegie Library

East Ayrshire Family History Society has indexed 1851 for the whole of Ayrshire and this is now available on CD-Rom from them.

Largs Family History Society has indexed the 1851 census for  Largs, West Kilbride, and Dalry

Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

1861 Census

This has been indexed for all parishes in Ayrshire by the East Ayrshire Family History Society and is available on microfiche and CD-Rom from them.

Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

1871 Census

 Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

1881 Census

Is now available online at www.familysearch.org However those registered in Scotland on the census date are NOT as yet included.

Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/


Set of CD-Roms - 1881 British Census and National Index

The set covering England, Scotland, Wales, Channel Islands, Isle of Man and Royal Navy can be purchased from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

Index to the 1891 Ayrshire Census

The index to the 1891 Ayrshire Census provides speedy access to brief details of everyone living in Ayrshire in 1891. The index gives information on names and ages, then parishes, book and page numbers allowing the full entry details to be found quickly on the census films.

Held at the Dick Institute (on microfiche)

Held at the Baird Institute (on microfiche)

Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/

1901 Ayrshire Census

Census held on film at Ardrossan Library

Online available for a small payment from   http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk/


Census Records held at the The Vennel Local and Family History Centre

* census held

Also the 1901 Census for most Parishes

Ref No Parish 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891
576 Ardrossan * * * * * *
553/554 Arran (Lochranza/Kilbride/Kilmory) * * * * * *
577 Auchinleck * * * *
578 Ayr * * *
579 Ballantrae * * * * * *
580 Barr * * * * * *
581 Beith * * * * * *
613 Catrine (see Sorn) * *
582 Colmonel * * *      
583 Coylton * * *      
584 Craigie * * *      
598 Crosshouse (see Kilmaurs) * * * * * *
552 Cumbraes (including Millport) * * * * * *
585 Dailly * * * *    
586 Dalmellington * * * *   *
587 Dalry * * * * * *
588 Dalrymple * * * * * *
593 Darvel (see Galston) * * * *    
589 Dreghorn * * * * * *
590 Dundonald * * * *   *
591 Dunlop * * * *    
602 Fairlie (see Largs) * * * * * *
592 Fenwick * * * *    
593 Galston * * * *    
594 Girvan * * * *    
595 Irvine * * * * * *
597 Hurlford (see Kilmarnock) *   * *    
553/554 Kilbride (see Arran) * * * * * *
596 Kilbirnie * * * * * *
597 Kilmarnock *   * *    
598 Kilmaurs * * * * * *
553/554 Kilmory (see Arran) * * * * * *
599 Kilwinning * * * * * *
552 Kingarth * * * * * *
600 Kirkmichael * * * * * *
601 Kirkoswald * * * * * *
598 Knockentiber (see Kilmaurs) * * * * * *
602 Largs * * * * * *
552 Lochranza (see Arran)   * * * *  
603 Loudoun * * * * *  
581 Lugton (see Beith) * * * * * *
604 Mauchline   * * *    
605 Maybole     * *    
606 Monkton     * *    
607 Muirkirk     * *    
552 North Bute * * * * * *
602 Prestwick     * *    
558 Rothesay * * * * * *
612 St Quivox     * *    
576/615 Saltcoats (Ardrossan/Stevenston) * * * * * *
602 Skelmorlie * * * * * *
613 Sorn     * *   *
614 Stair *   * *   *
615 Stevenston * * * * * *
616 Stewarton * * * * * *
617 Straiton * * * * * *
618 Symington * * * * * *
619 Tarbolton * * * * * *
620 West Kilbride * * * * * *






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