The census has been taken every 10-years since 1841 and offers a snapshot into the lives of your ancestors on one specific day.Details you will discover include: address, full names of all occupants on that day (whether permanent residents or just visiting), occupations, ages, relationship to other occupants and marital status. Once you have found an ancestor, by viewing the details of other occupants you will quickly be able to build up a picture of their family life and details of other family members you may not have already discovered to add to your family tree. If you can't find a male ancestor in the 1861 census then it could be because they were a serving soldier. The 1861 Worldwide Army Index could be of help here, with the names of 245,000 men stationed in Britain and around the British Empire. Working backwards you should then be able to follow the path of your ancestor's life and, hopefully, discover the previous generation's details via tracing the census back to the point at which your ancestor was living with a parent / guardian. Having found a new member of the family to add to your tree via the census, it is always worth searching to see if there is any mention of them in the national / local press.
For a variety of reasons the census returns for England & Wales 1841-1911 and the census returns for Scotland 1841-1901 are incomplete and have pieces missing. The later the census was taken, the more information is available for us to explore. For instance, the 1841 census is missing parishes from eleven counties in England, but the 1891 census is only missing some house numbers. Our collection of the 1911 census is complete for England and Wales, but no transcripts or images are available for this year for Scotland. If you are having trouble finding your ancestor we recommend that you consult these lists to find if your relative's parish is missing from the official records. Census for England, Wales and Scotland: missing pieces
For more detailed information on how to search the census, it is worth reading our experts' advice.