One of the most useful sites you have to pay for is Ancestry. Ancestry has all kinds of records for England (and other parts of the world). In this post we'll talk about how to use the ancestry search engine. You can find Ancestry at ancestry.com, ancestry.ca, or ancestry.co.uk - it is all the same company.
As with FamilySearch, Ancestry has both "old" and "new" user interfaces. We prefer the Old Search for Ancestry because you can use wildcards in the placename when searching census records, etc. Also you can search more efficiently because you are able to refine the search without going back - in New Search you have to go to another page to refine your search and this takes longer and is annoying.
You can use Ancestry without being a paid subscriber but you won't be able to see the details of the results or the original images (except for a few free databases such as the 1881 census). You can use Ancestry for free at either Gibsons or Sechelt public libraries - unfortunately you have to be in the library to do this.
When searching on Ancestry you can search all of the records at once or one database at a time. We prefer to search one database at a time, and usually open one browser tab for the 1841 census, one for the 1851 census, and so on. This allows you to move easily back and forward through time while following the same family. Ancestry has census taken in England from 1841 to 1901 (one every 10 years).
When searching in the census databases, you have the option to put several bits of information into the search: names, birthplaces, place of residence, approximate birth year and so on. We like to tick the box for "Exact Search" because you have more control over the information you are specifying in the search and you get fewer irrelevant results.
If your initial search for a specific person does not turn up what you are looking for, start removing information from the search. For example, leave out the parish and just include the county - sometimes people listed their birthplace as the parish near to the one where you think they should have been born. Broaden the range for birthyear in case the age is not quite right. Leave out either the first name or last name. Use wildcards for names in case there are variations in spelling. For example, I have seen Walters spelt or mistranscribed as Watters, Wallers, Walter, Wauters, Walltres, etc - if you use W*l*t*r* as your search or even Wal*, you will get a lot more hits to look through but you will be more likely to capture wild or incorrect spelling. Also, do remember that historically, spelling has been very flexible and you cannot assume that how you spell a name now is how it was always spelt. Look for phonetic spelling! When you can't find someone it's often because the names were mangled by the enumerator and/or the transcriber.
When you are an Ancestry subscriber you can see the image of the original census pages and therefore can check the spelling for yourself if a result seems promising. (You can save a copy of the image to your computer as well.) As a last resort, put minimal name information in - e.g., search for Har* Wal* when looking for a Harriett Walters, and then look for names in the results list that must have been mistranscribed such as Harnet Waltus. You can then check the original yourself.
If you can't find the person you are seeking, try searching for another family member, especially a sibling with a more unusual name. You can also leave names out completely and search for anyone born in the parish you're looking for, born within a particular time frame (or just use a first name). Of course this tactic doesn't work for larger towns and cities because you may have thousands of hits to scroll through. Or - leave out the location altogether and search by name - again this is probably only an option when the names are not extremely common.
Finally, if you can't find someone in a census, look for the family in the census before or after. And remember that when there are 10-year old children in the family, that is a good clue to where the family was 10 years earlier.
In another post I'll talk about searching in the 1911 census. If you have any tips to add, or any comments, please let us know!