Ancestry provides a search facilities for a range of records, and the most important is that it currently supports all English census returns from 1841 to 1901, which are indexed - and they also provided images of the original enumerator pages. While there is a fee to make full use of the site, the power of the census searching means that it is excellent value for money. Familysearch gives free access to the transcript of the 1881 census (but not the page images) and under some circumstances its search facilities prove better.
To give some idea of the power of the Ancestry package I spent a day searching for the census entries for some of my ancestors. The test involved 7 individuals and a total of 27 possible hits and in 7 cases previous attempt to locate individuals in a given census year had been unsuccessful. Using the basic Ancestry search form 20 were "top rank" hits (plus a duplicate entry that would normally never have been found). 2 more hits were on Ancestry's first page of ranked results and 2 more were easily found in a wildcard search. The final 3 had transcription errors at the start of the surname, but were found by searching on first name, age and place of birth. In 5 cases the search was harder than it should have been because of transcription errors, but even then the entries were still found. In less than a day I had found everyone I was looking for in every possible census ... For a full report on the findings see An Assessment of Ancestry for Census Searching.
It provides coverage of the birth, marriage and death indexes, as does findmypast. In addition it provides free access to the FreeBMD data base,
It also provides a wide range of other services, with new ones being added, so you should check its home page for details.
Mike Webber reported that the following parishes are missing from the 1841 census on Ancestry. I have checked several and confirm that they are missing although images of the pages are available elsewhere.
HO 107/442 North-Mimms
Sandon should be added to the above list - gaps still not corrected. July 2008
Examples of its use with the censuses are given in the following Tutorials:
Gladys Horwood in the 1901 census
Thomas & Florence Horwood in the 1891 census
Thomas Horwood in the 1881 census (comparison with familysearch)
Florence King in the 1871 census (and 1881 using familysearch)
Mary Town in the 1851 and 1861 censuses
James Horwood in the 1851 and 1861 censuses
and many others
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Page updated July 2008