Breaking Through Brick Walls: Census Records

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The inevitable brick wall. They are a part of every genealogist’s journey, so don’t be put off when you hit yours. Brick walls take extra patience, creative thinking and sometimes sheer luck to crack, but it’s an amazing sense of accomplishment when you do eventually find that missing piece of information.

One of the most common brick walls is a missing Census record. Census records are vital sources of information for the family historian: they can tell us where our ancestors were living, where they were born, their ages and occupations. Some countries provide more data, some less, but you’ll most definitely want to find Census records wherever you can.

More than once, I’ve found all of the expected Census records for an ancestor except for one. So what happened? Did they move? Leave the country? Were they in jail?

If you feel sure your ancestor was in a certain place because all of the other Census records have them in that location, then they probably were there. In which case, the likely culprit is a misspelled name. It’s possible the Census itself has incorrect information: enumerators may have incorrectly spelled a family name when completing the Census forms. On top of that, modern-day transcribers, working hard to interpret that old handwriting, sometimes make mistakes, so when you search one of the popular genealogy records website (e.g.,,,, you might get zero results if you’re doing an exact search for Smythe when the name was actually recorded as Smith.

Here are a couple of brick walls that I recently ran into and how I managed to break them down.

BRICK WALL #1: Mary Knill

I easily found all of the Census records between 1841 and 1901 for my 3x great-grandfather, Peter Knill, a house painter born in Barnstaple, North Devon, England. The 1861 and 1871 Censuses showed that Peter was married to a Mary and that their first son Richard was born around 1851. Additionally, the 1851 Census listed Peter as married, but he was living alone in South Molton. So where was Mary in 1851? Searching for a Mary Knill in the 1851 Census didn’t return any viable matches.

In this case, a bit of luck helped locate Mary. I happened to be looking at Peter’s parents on the 1851 Census in Barnstaple, Devon, England and just for fun, I scrolled back through a few pages of the Census. It’s always fascinating to see what people did for a living and who was living near my ancestors – browsing Census records can give you a good sense of your ancestors’ communities. I’d gone back three pages when suddenly, Mary Knill’s name popped out at me, along with her 4 month old son, Richard. She was listed as being married, a painter’s wife and had been born in Barnstaple. Everything matched my Mary! She was living with her parents Robert and Mary Harper, so now I also had information on another generation back. The most likely scenario was that she was living with her parents until Peter was settled in South Molton, where she did eventually join him. A later Census record for Peter Knill and Mary showed that the middle names for all of their children was Harper – another piece of evidence that indicated Mary’s maiden name was probably Harper.

1851 England and Wales Census for Mary Knill i

And the reason she hadn’t shown up in my searches? had transcribed her name as Knell instead of Knill. A simple wildcard search would have located her eventually, but I was happy to stumble upon her in this way as it taught me the value of simply browsing through Census records. You never know what you’ll find!

BRICK WALL #2: James Page

I ran into a brick wall with another 3x great-grandfather: James Page. I’d found the 1841 and 1861 Census records for he and his family in Liverpool, but couldn’t locate their 1851 record. The 1861 Census told me that they’d had children born in Liverpool both before and after 1851, but broadening my search terms and locations didn’t result in any matches for them in 1851.

At the time, I’d been searching via my subscription with, so at this point, I decided to check other genealogy databases and started with Almost immediately, I found the missing 1851 Census record for the Page family! So why couldn’t I find it in I returned to Ancestry and searched for the missing Census by the name of one of the lodgers that had living with the Pages: Winifred Kitts. Right away, the matching record came up, complete with my Page family. A closer look revealed that had mistranscribed the Page name as Daye.

1851 England and Wales Census for James Page ii

In this case, a wildcard search would have been unlikely to produce meaningful results. Searching for ?a?e, for example, would have included my family, as well as thousands of others. This isn’t the only time I’ve run into errors in one database only to find the correct transcription elsewhere. So if you can’t find results in one subscription-based website, try another site. Sometimes, you’ll get just enough clues from the list of results without having to pay a fee. Alternatively, wait for a free weekend with one of the major sites – they regularly pop up, so it’s worth keeping a list of searches that you want to perform when you can do so free of charge.


  • Try spelling variations for names.
  • Use wildcards in your searches.
  • Browse Census records by address.
  • Read through a few pages on either side of a Census result to see who’s living near your ancestor. This is especially effective in smaller towns where family may have lived near each other.
  • Search a different genealogy records website.

Be patient – eventually, you’ll smash down some of your own brick walls.


i. 1851 Census of England and Wales, Devon, Barnstaple Parish, Enumeration District (ED) 3m, folio 336, p. 5, 17 Lichtdon Street, Mary Knill in household of Robert Harper, digital images, ( : accessed 2 May 2016); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives of Kew, Surrey.

ii.  1851 Census of England and Wales, Lancashire, Liverpool Parish, Enumeration District (ED) 1d, folio 7, p. 6, Household schedule number 20, 35 Copperas Hill, James Page household, digital images, ( : accessed 9 Sep 2016); citing PRO HO 107, The National Archives of Kew, Surrey.

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