Information to accessing census records

FOI request reference: F0042712
Publication date: July 2015


Dear National Archives,

I have used your the links to databases which you suggest I uses to access information on individuals from your site stating “3. How to access the censuses Census records for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911 are available online via the links in the table below.

You can search the online census returns by name, browse by place, or locate an exact page if you have the full census reference.
The websites in the table below are subscription-based websites. It is free to search these websites, but there is a charge to view full transcriptions and download documents. ”

Frankly the information I receieved is next to useless and all the useful information has been withheld – putting pressure on me to pay for the information I want which I am fully entitled to at no cost under the FoIA.

Critical information on addresses and other members of the household have been withheld making it impossible for me to distinguish my Great Great gandmother from a group of other people from this the 1841 census and likewise in other censuses.

To allow me to complete my trace I require all information on  from the National Archives census records including all records of the ages, addresses, places of birth, relationships similar details of other members of their households and the page and record numbers of the records relating to these of my ancestors.

I have to say that it would be much easier for me and for you if you published all the information available rather than withholding the crucial material – frankly what is supplied is useless and amounts only to what I already knew and had put in the search engine.  Can you please therefore also explain why your publication scheme is so uselessly ineffectual and forces members of the public to have to make time consuming (both for you and them) requests like this one?

Yours faithfully



Dear [redacted],

Thank you for your enquiry of 11 July 2015, in which you asked for information in, and about access to, the Census records for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911 held at The National Archives.

Your request has been handled under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA).  The FOIA gives you two rights of access when you write to us asking for information.  You have the right to know whether we hold the information that you are looking for, and you have the right to have the information given to you.  These rights may only be overridden if the information you are looking for is covered by an exemption in the Act.

Because the information you have requested is freely available at The National Archives, we do not have to provide it to you under the terms of the FOIA.  Section 21 of the FOIA, which exempts information that is reasonably accessible by other means, allows us to do this.

Although the third-party websites that provide digital access to the Census records are subscription-based, you can view the Census records free of charge onsite at The National Archives in Kew, whilst many libraries and record offices also have subscriptions to the third-party websites.  In addition, most local and county record offices hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own area.

You can use ‘Find an Archive’ on our website to find contact details for local and county record offices:

To visit The National Archives please check our website for details of our opening hours and registration requirements:

You will also find details about where we are located and how to get to the archives on our website:

For more on Section 21 and its application here please see the explanatory annex at the end of this email.

If you are dissatisfied with the handling of your request or the decision which has been reached, you have the right to ask for an internal review.  Internal review requests must be submitted within two months of the date of this response and should be addressed to:

Quality Manager
Public Services Development Unit
The National Archives

Please mark your complaint clearly.  You have the right to ask the Information Commissioner (ICO) to investigate any aspect of your complaint.  However, please note that the ICO is likely to expect internal complaints procedures to have been exhausted before beginning his investigation.

Yours sincerely,

FOI Assessor
Freedom of Information Centre
Transfer and Access Department
The National Archives

Explanatory Annex

Exemptions applied

Section 21: Information readily available to the applicant by other means

Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) does not oblige a public authority to provide information if it is already reasonably accessible by other means.  In this case the exemption applies because the information is already available in a number of locations and accessible via a number of means. You can access the Census records for England and Wales from 1841 to 1911:

• Free of charge at The National Archives
• For a subscription through third-party websites
• For free at some libraries and record offices that have subscriptions to these third-party websites
• At local and county record offices that hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own area

Section 11(1) (a) of the FOIA states that where reasonably practical we should provide the requester with their preferred method of communication, in your case, access to electronic copies offsite.  However, section 11(2) allows us to take into account what is reasonably practicable with regards to providing the information and confirms that we may take into account all of the circumstances, including the cost of doing so.

The third-party websites that provide digital access to the Census records are subscription website. Therefore you are able to access the information in your preferred format but, in accordance with the Act, there is a charge for this option.

The National Archives is entitled to charge for services (including the provision of copies), particularly where there is the free option of inspection here at our premises. The National Archives’ fees for charges for services have been set by a Statutory Instrument and approved by the Lord Chancellor and the Treasury. The legislation can be found here:

As the government’s national archives for England, Wales and the United Kingdom, we do not receive funding to make records downloadable: our statutory duty under the Public Records Act is to make it possible to search and locate information, a service which is provided by Discovery, our catalogue. The cost of digitising records is considerable and is considered an ‘added value’ service by HM Treasury; as such we are required to recover the full cost of the service from our customers.

Further guidance on Section 21 can be found here.

If you would like to contact us again regarding this request, please contact the helpdesk by replying to this e-mail or  calling 020 8876 3444.
Remember to quote your call reference number: F0042712 in any correspondence, as this will assist us in providing you with a quick response.