Tracing ancestors through the census

The immigration of ancestors across the globe during the 1800’s and 1900’s meant descendants, in some cases, had little information about the families they left behind in their country of birth. While this adds an element of complexity to tracing your ancestors families, there is a wealth of information available to assist you in uncovering who your ancestors family were.

The census is one such research tool available to the keen genealogist to explore and track down their elusive ancestors.

The first census to be taken in England was at the time of William the Conqueror who in 1086 wanted a record of land ownership and livestock numbers. These early records can be found through History Magazine and is known as the Doomsday Book.

In 1801, the English government, unlike other governments across the United Kingdom, introduced the census for statistical purposes for the Overseers of the Poor and the Clergy. Every ten years following 1801 the census was undertaken and each time recorded more information on household composition.

In 1841, the information sought on households have gone onto provide genealogists with a goldmine of information to trace ancestors and their families across the United Kingdom. With a record of names, ages, gender, occupation, place of birth, and year of birth (often rounded up) in each household genealogists now have the ability to track down that elusive ancestor and gain greater knowledge of families and the lives they led.

By 1911 further details were recorded in the census, including how many children were born, how many were living or deceased at the time of the census and whether if any residents had a disability.

In this blog, Ancestor Detective, will go back to 1861 to trace the ancestors of Harold Downes. This exploration of census records will highlight the significance of these records and how much you can learn about your families and the lives they led.

Using the English Census to trace your ancestors

Harold Downes was born in 1894 in England and immigrated to and arrived in Australia on 18 March 1913 on board the ship “Orama”. After his early discharge from the Australian Imperial Force on 19 January 1916, Harold moved to Ouyen in the Victorian Mallee where he married Jean Fleming on 23 July 1924. After farming in the Mallee for some time and owning a dairy in Mildura, Harold and Jean moved to Dandenong where he became a poultry farmer. Harold died on 11 November 1963.

While Harold’s brothers also immigrated to Australia and outlived him, little was known about their family back in England. Using census records Ancestor Detective goes on a genealogy journey to trace Harold’s family in England.

The registration of Harold’s birth reveals that he was born on 12 December 1894 at Albion Street in Tamworth, Stafford to Daniel Downes and Eliza Roe. Using the names of Harold’s parents we searched for the English census to trace Harold’s father, Daniel Downes, until his death in 1901.

We located the registration of Daniel’s birth at the UK General Registers Office, showing us that he was born on 11 July 1854 in Stafford, England to Abraham Downes, a shoemaker, and Mary Goodwin. In 1861 the English census was undertaken when Daniel would have been seven years of age. However, while his parents Abraham and Mary are recorded as living in Middlehills Street, Heathy Lee in Staffordshire. At the time of this census, Daniel was one of five children, yet on the day the census was recorded only Daniel’s younger brother, William was present. No record of Daniel’s whereabouts or his siblings on the day of the census has yet been found.

Ten years on in 1871, aged 17 years old, Daniel appears in the 1871 English census working as a farm laborer/servant in the Robinson family at Buck Bank farm in the township of Henbury in England.

By 1881, Daniel, aged 25 years, is married to his first wife, Eliza Foukes, and living at Hyde Hall in Lancashire. As a farm laborer, Daniel and Eliza have three children Ann Foukes (aged 5 years), Mary Jane (aged 3 years), and James William (aged 3 months). Six years later Eliza dies, aged 33 years, leaving Daniel to raise their three children alone.

By 1891, Daniel has remarried to Eliza Roe aged 22 years and they are living in Stonnall, Staffordshire with James William (aged 10 years) from his first marriage and Fred (aged 6 months). Daniel and Eliza would go on to have another four children by the 1901 census living at Cork Hall in Austrey. Employed as a banksman at a coal mine, Daniel, aged 47 years shortly after the 1901 census was recorded leaving Eliza, aged 33 years old, with five children aged under 10 years.

With five young children and no husband to support them by 1911 the children of Daniel and Eliza are split up. According to the 1911 census, both Fred (aged 20 years) and Edith (aged 10 years) are living with their older step brother James William in Staffordshire. Herbert then aged 18 years is living as a boarder while working in the coal mines in Burton Upon Trent in Derbyshire. Finding Harold and Arthur then aged 17 and 10 years in 1911 was more difficult and where they are living in 1911 is still a mystery to solve.

At the same time their mother, Eliza, has also disappeared from the census records of 1911 and it is not until her death in February 1923 in Staffordshire that she reappears.

In the years that follow 1911, all but younger Edith, immigrates to Australia where they live until their deaths.

Registration of Birth for Harold Downes, 20 December 1894, Reg. No. 1895/266, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

SRO of Western Australia; Freemantle Outwards Sep 1900 – Dec 1915; Accession: 457; Item: 61; Roll: 157

Australia, WWI Service Records for Harold Downes, 1914-1920, Series B2455

Certificate of Marriage for Harold Downes and Jean Fleming, 23 July 1924, Reg. No. 8882, The Victorian Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Certified copy in possession of author.

Certificate of Death for Harold Downes, 11 November 1963, Reg. No. 23493/1963, The Victorian Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Certified copy in possession of author.

Registration of Birth for Daniel Downes, 11 July 1854, Reg. No. 1854/82, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

1851 England Census, Heathy Lee Township, Staffordshire County, England; p. 3, family 17; Class: RG 9; Piece: 1949; Folio: 55; Page: 3; GSU roll: 542892

1871 England Census, Cheshire Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG10; Piece: 3678; Folio: 98; Page: 4; GSU roll: 841869

1881 England Census, Lancanshire Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG11; Piece: 4045; Folio: 21; Page: 36; GSU roll: 1341967

Registration of Death for Eliza Downes, 1887, England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915, Vol. 8a

1891 England Census, Stonnall Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG12; Piece: 2214; Folio: 114; Page: 9; GSU roll: 6097324

1901 England Census, Austrey Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG13; Piece: 2650; Folio: 100; Page: 12

Registration of Death for Daniel Downes, 20 December 1901, Reg. No. 1901/120, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

1911 England Census, Tamworth Township, Staffordshire County, England; Class: RG14; Piece: 16835; Schedule Number: 21

1911 England Census, Castle Gresley Township, Derbyshire County, England; Class: RG14; Piece: 16770; Schedule Number: 71

Registration of Death for Eliza Downes, 25 February 1923, Reg. No. 1923/221, United Kingdom General Register Office. Certified copy in possession of author.

Read how Ancestor Detective traced the family of Harold Downes through the English Census at

Who was Silas Smith?

Silas SMITH was born to Charles SMITH and Ann (Lacey) SMITH on 6 March 1824 in Sangford, Somerset, England and baptised on the 28 July 1833 in Ulley, Gloucestershire, England.  Silas and his younger brother, Henry, grew up in Whately Street in Langport. 

Shortly after the death of his mother, Ann, in April 1842, Silas, aged 27 years, was employed as a Police Constable located in Bow Street in Middlesex.  Three years later, he would meet and marry, Maria GOODING, the daughter of Samuel GOODING and Elizabeth (Smith) GOODING on 7 August 1854 at St. John the Evangelist in Lambeth, England.

On the 1 January 1855 under the indenture system, Silas and Maria, boarded the clipper ship “Heather Bell” in London, England and headed for the port of Hobart in Australia. They arrived in Hobart on 27 August 1855, seven months after leaving England.  Under the indenture system, Silas was employed as a gardener and Maria a domestic servant, by James MACLANACHAN, a well-known grazier and politician, in return for free passage to Hobart.

In 1856, following the birth of their first son, Charles Morbeth SMITH the family sailed to Victoria and arrived in Portland on 23 April 1857 where they settled.

Still working as a gardener, in 1866, Silas, purchased a land lease of 40 acres, 3 roods and 10 perches in the county of Normanby and the district of Homerton, which would later be called Narrawong. The family would reside at the family property, “Sunny Bank”, for many years to come and where Silas would become a renowned as a grazier and community man.

Silas and Maria would go on to have ten children between 1856 and 1872.  Eldest son Charles Morbeth (1856 – 1922) would be followed by Morgey Gooding (1857 – 1949), Maude Mabel (1858 – 1888), Milo John (1859 – 1946), Marwood Samuel Kingston (1861 – 1946), Meta Mary Edith (1864 – 1940), Mahala Gertrude Lacey (1865 – 1943), Mira Minnie (1868 – 1952), Manoah Effey (1870 – 1945) and youngest Matthew Henry (1872 – 1944).

On 4 November 1896 at their property in Narrawong, Maria, would die suddenly, aged 68 years.  The Portland Guardian reported at the time, that Maria was going to milk the cows when she collapsed and didn’t regain consciousness, passing away the following morning.  Silas would eventually move in with his daughter Morgey Gooding HANLON and son in law James HANLON who were the licensee of the nearby Criterion Hotel in Hamilton. 

On 5 July 1915, aged 91 years, Silas passed away.  In his Obituary he was described as one of the very earliest colonists and a prominent worker in horticulture and agriculture.  In an article of the Portland Guardian, Silas was recognised as amongst the original founders of St. James’ Church in Tyrendarra that was built by the community in 1874.  Both, Silas and Maria, were laid to rest at the Narrawong Cemetery in Narrawong

Archive Office of Tasmania. (1829 – 1957). Tasmania, Australia, Passenger Arrivals. Tasmania, Australia.

Archives Office Tasmania. (1841 – 1884). Immigrant Lists. Tasmania, Australia.

Australian Institute of Genealogical Studies. (1808 – 2007). Australia Cemetery Index. Australia.

Departent of Crown Lands and Survey. (1890). Narrawong. County of Normanby. Victoria, Australia.

General Register Office, England. (1837-1915). England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1837-1915.

General Register Office, England. (1854, August 7). Certificate of Marriage between Silas Smith and Maria Gooding. Surrey, England.

Gloucestershire Archives. (1813 – 1913). Gloucestershire, England, Church of England Baptisms. Gloucestershire, England.

Portland Guardian. (1896, November 6). Obituary Maria Smith. Portland, Victoria, Australia.

Portland Guardian. (1915, July 9). Death Notice Silas Smith. Portland, Victoria, Australia.

Portland Guardian. (1915, July 7). Silas Smith Obituary. Portland Guardian. Portland, Victoria, Australia.

Portland Guardian. (1925, December 3). St. James’, Tyrendarra. Portland Guardian. Portland, Victoria, Australia.

Portland Guardian and Normanby General Advertiser. (1866, March 22). Silas Smith 1866 Land Lease. Portland, Victoria, Australia.

Somerset Heritage Socity. (1813 – 2003). Church of England Deaths and Burials. London, England.

The National Archives. (1841). 1841 England Census. 1841 England Census. Somerseet County, England: The National Archives, London, England.

The National Archives. (1851). 1851 England Census. Middlesex County, England: The National Archives, London, England.

Tomorrow on Ancestor Detective

Little was known about the ancestors that came before Harry Smith, so Ancestor Detective followed the evidence and found Silas Smith, Harry’s paternal Great Grandfather. Read about Silas here

Finding Jean Fleming

I was at the start of my genealogy journey to uncover my Nana Jean’s ancestors.  Not a lot was known about my Nana’s family and I was too little when she was alive to ask her questions about her life.  Our family knew that Nana was born in 1893 in Bathgate, Scotland and was the second eldest of 16 children, although I didn’t know how many siblings there were at the time.  One thing my family remembers was my Nana always said she was a descendant of Mary Queen of Scots, whether that is true or not I am yet to discover.

I didn’t know what to expect during this genealogy journey but I was keen to find out…..

I located Nana’s birth date, 9 September 1893, on her grave record at the Springvale Botanical Cemetery and her parent’s names, Andrew Fleming and Rachel Brown, from her record of death.  So, with my Nana’s birth date and the names of her parents in hand I headed to Scotland, in cyber world, to find out who my Nana’s family were. 

My initial search began when I entered Nana’s name and her parent’s names into a family tree I started on  These details triggered a range of hints of information available on both my Nana and her parents.  Ancestry took me to the 1901 Scotland Census (you can learn more about the census here) for the household of Andrew and Rachel Fleming and their six children (Rachel aged 9, Jane aged 7, Andrew aged 5, Christina aged 3, Mary aged 1, and Elizabeth aged one month). No Jean! Maybe it was the wrong Fleming family?

Searches through other census records for 1901 and West Lothian did not uncover another Fleming family headed by Andrew and Rachel Fleming.

My next port of call was ScotlandsPeople (find out more on ScotlandsPeople in future posts) for a registration of birth for my Nana Jean.  The initial search using year of birth and Nana’s name found no records and an advanced search revealed no records.  How was this possible?

Searching the Fleming line for more information I found a photograph that identified possible ancestors of Andrew Fleming, so I contacted the owner of that family tree on  I asked about the photograph and the people in it, to see if they were possibly my Nana’s ancestors.  After some initial emails I learnt about naming traditions in Scotland and the use of alternative given names.  I was told that those named Jean were also called Jane, just to add to the confusion!

This was to be my first genealogy lesson and here lay my first challenge in finding both Nana’s birth certificate and her family through the Scotland Census!

Back to the census record I found from 1901. I noted that one of the children in the Fleming household was a daughter, Jane aged 7 years, born about 1894…..maybe this was my Nana Jean?

I headed back to ScotlandsPeople, searching, for Jane Fleming, born about 1893 in Bathgate, West Lothian, Scotland and there she was born Jane. Her registration of birth recorded her birth as 10 September 1983, to Andrew Fleming and Rachel Fleming “Mrs Brown” (you will learn more about Scottish name conventions in a future post).  I noted that her birth date recorded on her registration of birth was different to the date on her cemetery record – one day out.

Lessons you can take from this research:

  • A given name for an ancestor used in their lifetime is not necessarily the name given to them at birth – look for alternative names and spelling;
  • Years of birth recorded on non-vital records such as registrations of birth and death, may not be accurate, such as Nana’s cemetery record – always source the vital record to verify;
  • Census records only record the approximate year of birth and age and may not be accurate – vital records are important to verify this information; and
  • Names recorded and the spelling of the same, may not be accurate, as often in the 1800 and 1900’s phonetic spelling was used or sometimes the person the census recorder asked did not know the details of all family members.

Records to check for you Scottish ancestors used for this post:

  • ScotlandsPeople found at
  • – 1901 Scotland Census (also found in ScotlandsPeople)
  • Cemetery records, if you know where they died or were buried, otherwise Find A Grave is a great source

Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust, accessed on 23 November 2019 at

Death Certificate for Jean Downes, Registration No. 14030/1987, The Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, Victoria, Australia.  Certified copy in possession of author.

1901 Scotland Census, Bathgate Township, West Lothian, Scotland, ED. 4, p. 3, line, 19, Roll. CSSCT1901_354, Registration No. 662/1.  Certified copy in possession of author.

Index of Death, Downes J, 1987, BDM Victoria, Reg #14030. Certified copy in possession of author.

The face behind Ancestor Detective….

I am the conclusion of my ancestors story.

The prologue of my descendants’ story.


Hi everyone,

My name is Deb and I am the face behind Ancestor Detective.

I am a 40 something old Mum of an 18 year old son and a cute puppy. I have been working in government for my career in the field of emergency management. I specialise in research and evaluation, planning and policy, and a range of other areas.

Academically I have completed a Bachelor of Social Science – Emergency Management and a Master of Emergency Management.

Where Ancestor Detective began……

Ancestor Detective’s journey started when I was asked to look up how many people in Australia had a particular surname. From there my passion for uncovering ancestors, building family trees, searching for records, and writing about particular ancestors grew.

My first journey into my ancestors started with my Nana Jean who immigrated to Australia from Scotland. Little was known about my Nana’s family. The family knew she was born in Bathgate, Scotland in 1893 and was one of 16 children born. My Mum had recollections of Nana’s brother, Andrew, visiting Australia along with a grand daughter from one of Nana’s siblings. Nana told the family often that she was a descendant of Mary Queen of Scot’s but whether this was true or not it, was as far as talking about her ancestors as it got.

My second journey into my ancestors started with Nana’s husband, Harold, who immigrated from England. Like Nana, little was known about who Harold’s family was and where he was born. Harold died when my Mum was quite young and any recollection of Harold’s childhood has been forgotten or was never told.

As I gradually built these family trees and uncovered my great grandparents families, their vital records and details of their lives, my passion and interest grew and Ancestor Detective was born.

Recognising that genealogy in the modern world of technology and the internet can be overwhelming and often just knowing where and how to start your family history can be a daunting task. With a passion for research and writing I have chosen to share my genealogy journey by providing ancestor stories, along with tips and resources to help you build your families history.

As well as sharing stories of my ancestors and those I have researched for clients, Ancestor Detective, will provide posts that will assist in breaking down those brick walls, where going further back into your family history seems impossible. I will provide information on how to find different records as well as providing advice on the best ways to ensure that the ancestor you have found is in fact yours.

I welcome you to Ancestor Detective and hope you enjoy our blogs and all that we can provide to assist you on your journey to uncover your past. You never know who and what you will find…..

Please feel free to share our posts far and wide, provide comments on our posts and please get in contact if you have questions or would like to employ Ancestor Detective to uncover your families history.


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There are so many stories buried in family trees. — Henry Louis Gates Jnr.
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