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Ancestors in the Records:
Western European Censuses
(first published in Internet Genealogy, January 2010)

Anyone who has done U.S. research knows about U.S. census records. These records are considered the backbone of U.S. research. But the same doesn’t hold true for Western European researchers. Often researchers rely on other sources, most notably parish records, to build their European family trees. Many don’t even know if census records exist for their country or not.

So how important are European census records? Well, it depends. But, it’s certainly worth looking into. For most countries, some type of census records exist and sometimes represent an important source for your family. 

Censuses in the different Western European countries vary greatly from one another. First, they vary in when they were kept. Some countries kept censuses regularly beginning quite early while others kept them sporadically if at all. Censuses also vary in the type of information they contain. Some record only the bare minimum of facts while others are a goldmine of details about our families.

Finally, censuses vary in how easy they are to find and use. Some are not filmed, and are only available in archives of their country. But because censuses can be a very important research help, the majority of the most useful European census records are now available online. Here are some online census records you might want to check out.

Denmark

Danish censuses are important sources that can be extremely valuable to researchers. Censuses have been better preserved and contain more genealogical information in Denmark than for any of the other Scandinavian countries. In fact, census records exist for the following years: 1769/1771, 1787, 1801, 1834, 1840, 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1901, 1906 and 1911. Denmark also kept other types of censuses including early school censuses, tax censuses, and a census of males (in 1700 for military purposes).

As with most countries, the information included in the census becomes more detailed as time goes on. However, even early censuses contain names of all the members of the household, along with their ages, sexes, occupations, relationships to the head of the household, and marital statuses. After 1845 the census included the place of birth for each member of the household as well as their religious affiliation.

Danish censuses can be found online at Danish Demographic Database, http://ddd.dda.dk/kiplink_en.htm under the census tag. The search, which brings up transcribed entries, is free. Scanned images are not available, but you can pay a fee to get actual copies of the records or to have further research done. The censuses aren’t yet complete, but represent an ongoing project. You can see their progress and see if your place of interest is included at http://www.dis-danmark.dk/kipkort/fronta-e.php. Currently the 1801, 1834, 1840,and 1845 are complete. Other census years have some counties completed.

The Progenealogist website has begun putting online abstracts for the 1700 census of males. Currently, three counties are available. You can access these at http://www.progenealogists.com/denmark/1700/censusindex.html. In another section of their site, http://www.progenealogists.com/denmark/school/index.htm, you can find transcripts of school censuses from 1737 in Copenhagen.

Finland

Finland has a couple of records that are similar to census records. These include a population register kept for taxation purposes as well as communion books that were part of the church records. The population registers begin very early. At first, only the head of household was recorded. In later records, you can often find the names of each member of the household and sometimes ages too. You can read more about Finish census records at https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/Finland_Census.

You can find some of the population registers online through Digitaaliarkisto at http://digi.narc.fi/digi/puu.ka. The site is only in Finish, so it can be difficult to use. Choose the Henkikirjat or Henkikirjat (kokoelma) tab. Next, select the district you want. You can choose the relevant time period, and finally the specific place of interest. Making this final choice will bring up actual images.

Communion books, recorded at a person’s first communion or confirmation, can contain more detailed information. This may include each person’s name and occupation, relationship to the head of household, birth dates and places, and sometimes marriage or death dates and places as well as where a person moved to or from. Some are online with the church books at Finland’s Family History Association, http://www.digiarkisto.org/sshy/index_eng.htm.

France

Censuses were generally kept every five years in France, beginning in 1836 (with a few exceptions). Often they are not helpful for genealogical research because they currently are not indexed, making them difficult to use. A few are available online. For more information read the About.com page on this at http://genealogy.about.com/od/france/a/french_ancestry_5.htm. Click on the link to “Online French Genealogy Records” to see what census records are on the internet.

Germany

Since Germany didn’t become a unified country until 1871, there are no national censuses before this. But some states did keep census records. Perhaps the most important of these are census records or Mecklenburg-Schwerin. Census records exist for this duchy for the years 1819, 1867, 1890, and 1900. All of these are available at www.ancestry.com. (Choose “Search” then “Census and Voter Lists”, then scroll down to Mecklenburg-Schwerin.) The censuses contain different information, but some years are quite detailed. For example, the 1867 census may record name, gender, year of birth, religion, occupation, citizenship, and distinguishing physical characteristics. In cities, sometimes only “control lists” with information on the head of household survived.

There are also censuses available for Schleswig-Holstein. This is because it was ruled by Denmark until 1864. Read the section on Danish censuses for more information about those.

Ireland

The earliest Irish census the survived intact is the 1901 census. Earlier censuses were destroyed, although a few scattered remnants are out there. The exciting news for Irish researchers is that the National Archives of Ireland recently made available the entire 1911 Irish census. You can access it at http://www.census.nationalarchives.ie. This census provides valuable information, asking for the following pieces of information from each person: name, age, sex, relationship to the head of the household, religion, occupation, marital status, and county or country of birth. Women were also asked how many years they had been married, how many children they had had born alive, and how many were still living. Other forms available for each household also tell about the type of building the family lived in, what other buildings were attached to the dwelling, religious denominations, and other information. The most exciting part is that not only can you search for free, but you can also view the original records without a charge.

The other good news is that the National Archives Ireland has also been working on the 1901 census. They plan to have these images online and searchable by the beginning of 2010. Currently, records for about seven counties are online at http://www.leitrim-roscommon.com/1901census/census.shtml.

A few other partial remnants of earlier censuses or records that serve as “census substitutes” are available for Ireland. You can find links to some of these at http://www.censusfinder.com/ireland.htm. You can also read about possible substitutes at FamilySearch’s Wiki page on this topic available at https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/Ireland_Census.

Italy

The earliest census in Italy was taken in 1871. Censuses have been taken every ten years since then. Early records include only the head of household, occupation, and number of people in the household. After 1901, more information became available. Italian census records are currently not available online and can be difficult to locate. You can read more about them at FamilySearch’s Italy Research Outline available at www.familysearch.org/Eng/Search/RG/guide/Italy5.asp.

Netherlands

The Netherlands took their first national census in 1829, and continued taking them every ten years until 1929. Local or regional censuses have also been taken periodically, some dating back much earlier than 1829. Generally, the census records are not available online. However, in some cases local record holders have taken initiatives to get census records online. You can check Digital Resources Netherlands and Belgium at http://www.geneaknowhow.net/digi/resources.html to see if there might be records you are interested in. Choose the province you want from the left to get a list of online records.

Norway

Norway has been recording censuses since the 1600s, although not consistently. The census recorded between 1663 and 1666 as well as the 1701 census only includes males over the age of twelve. In the nineteenth century, censuses began recording more information.

The Norwegian National Archives, http://digitalarkivet.uib.no, (choose English from the bottom) has been working to make a variety of material available, including census records, on their website. All their information is available for free. They currently have the entire 1801, 1865, and 1900 census as well as some of the 1875 census. Census records may include the name of each inhabitant in the household, residence, name and number of the farm, position in family, gender, place of birth, age, and religion.

Sweden

Sweden didn’t technically keep national census records. They did record tax lists which are sometimes called census records and date back quite early. More important though are a census-like record kept by the parish minister, known in English as clerical survey records. These wonderful records are available at the parish level and can include very detailed information such as names, ages, birth dates for each member of the household, plus occupations and land holdings for heads of households. For people who died or moved in or out since the last census, the record could include a death date, or moving date and place. Clerical survey records vary from place to place in what years they were recorded and what information they include. These local parish “census records” are mostly available online because of the fabulous collections of Swedish church records online. You can access them at www.genlin.com or now coming available at www.akrivdigital.se. Both require payment and have access to scanned images.

There is another, national, option for Swedish “census records.” You can find the 1880, 1890, and 1900 census available through the Swedish National Archive at http://www.svar.ra.se/. There are a couple of counties with censuses available for 1870 and one available for 1860. The databases are actually compilations of the clerical survey records done at the parish level and then sent to a SCG (Statistic Sweden), a government agency. You must have a subscription to view images and see results. Many options are available, including three-hour subscriptions. Be sure and read “How to search the census?” by choosing the tab on the side.

The Research Archives at Umea University has also made the 1890 census of five counties available online for free. Entries are transcribed. You can find these at http://www.foark.umu.se/census/about.htm. Choose the county you are interested in at the bottom.

United Kingdom

Some of the most important European censuses are those for the United Kingdom, which include England, Wales, Scotland, Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. The UK census was taken every ten years beginning in 1841. (Actually, the census started in 1801 but until 1841 it recorded only statistical information – not even preserving the name of the head of household.) The UK censuses contain detailed information about our ancestors and best of all, are available online in several places. If you have an Ancestry subscription (www.ancestry.com), you can access all the years from 1841 to 1901 here. The databases are indexed, searchable, and linked to images of the original records. The censuses have a variety of useful information including at least name, age, estimated birth year, and relationship to head of household. Later censuses also have marital status, occupation, birthplace, and other information.

But Ancestry isn’t the only online database with the United Kingdom censuses. You can also find censuses for England and Wales at Find my Past, www.findmypast.com. You can search the database for free, but must pay to view the original images by signing up with a subscription or opting to pay as you go. Again, you can find the censuses from 1841 to 1901. They are working to put the 1911 census online as well. In the meantime, you can use your Find My Past subscription to access the 1911 censuses at 1911census.co.uk.   

There are a few other options with incomplete censuses. For example, the Origins Network, http://www.origins.net, has some censuses. These include the 1841, 1861, and 1871 census for England and Wales. Again, a subscription is required. You can also try the site 1901 Census Online at http://www.1901censusonline.com. You must buy credits to view images. Links to other censuses are available. Finally, at FamilySearch, www.familysearch.org, you will find the 1881 British Isles census. Select “Advanced Search” from the front page, click on census from the side. Then from the census bar, click the down arrow and find “1881 British Isles Census.” You can search for free. Scanned images are not available.

You also never know when little pieces of the census have been put online either through a local genealogical society of just an individual person. One place to check for transcriptions like these is in the English section of as site called Census Finder available at http://www.censusfinder.com/england.htm. Here, you’ll find links divided by county to online census information.

Other Records

Keep in mind this is not a comprehensive list of all European census records available. For one thing, determining exactly what qualifies as a census record and what doesn’t can be confusing. As I have mentioned above, in addition to strictly national censuses along the lines of the U.S. census, you also have other types of census. Some were taken at a more local level – whether it is state, province, or county. Sometimes large cities took their own censuses. Census-like records may actually be lists of tax payers, military lists of men, lists of school children, or religious records. I have only included the most important online censuses here. For more information about some online census records, try www.censusfinder.com.

Also, just as with any record, not all censuses are available online. If a census exists for your area but isn’t available online, you will have to find it another way. Many census records have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah. These are usually available to order to your local family history center. Check the Family History Library Catalogue by going to www.familysearch.org, choosing the “Library” tab form the top and scrolling down to “Library Catalogue.” Then choose “Place Search.”

A great way to see what census records are available for your country or area is by looking in the corresponding Research Outline. Again, visit www.familysearch.org. This time, select “guides” from the right-hand side just above the photo. Select “Research Outline” from the list and scroll down to find your country. You can also find similar information, sometimes with more up-to-date internet links, at FamilySearch’s new Wiki, available at https://wiki.familysearch.org/en/.