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Wednesday, 2 January, 2002, 17:20 GMT
Census website a crashing success
Queen Victoria in 1890
The census was carried out in the year Queen Victoria died
The first online census in England has crashed on its first day after 1.2 million people tried to search for relatives.

The 1901 census for England and Wales provides a unique snapshot of Edwardian Britain.

But such was the excitement surrounding the project, the website ground to a halt for several hours soon after its launch while technicians worked feverishly to improve access.

Those who were able to search for ancestors, were able to find out details about their lives including where they lived, their age and even their mental state.

Queen Mother
The Queen Mother was only one when the census was taken
The Public Record Office says it will be invaluable for people all over the world who want to trace their British forbearers.

Census material is only released after 100 years, so these are the first public census records of the 20th Century.

They contain information on 32 million citizens, including the infant Queen Mother and comedian Charlie Chaplin.

The publication of the census and index has been welcomed by the Society of Genealogists.

Librarian Sue Gibbons said: "It's going to have as much impact as the 1881 census which was put onto CD Rom and that revolutionised family research. It's wonderful to have an online facility.

"I think they've now found they are a victim of their own success because so many people want to log on."

Margaret Brennand, from the Public Record Office, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that over the past 10 to 15 years interest in family history had soared.

She said the fact that information from the 1901 census will be available at the click of a button will make a huge difference to researchers.

Census record
The census entry of cricket legend WG Grace

"A huge amount of work has gone into taking the original census forms, scanning them, creating digital images and a comprehensive index to enable people to search for more than 32 million individuals living in England and Wales in 1901," she added.

A spelling mistake, perhaps down to poor hand-writing, lists the Queen Mother's middle name as Angelia, instead of Angela.

As eight-month-old Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, she is listed as living in Walden, Herts.

Silent screen star Charles Chaplin is listed as a "music hall artiste" while legendary cricketer WG Grace is described as a "physician and secretary of the London County Cricket Club".

Famous names

Other famous names among the pages include French painter Claude Monet, War of the Worlds author HG Wells, Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien and nurse Florence Nightingale.

The data, which has taken more than two years to digitalise, is expected to be particularly popular with people from overseas trying to trace their English and Welsh ancestry.

They may find out more than they wanted to know about their relatives.

Edwardians thought nothing of logging that someone was a lunatic, an imbecile or just plain feeble-minded.

Charlie Chaplin
Charlie Chaplin is listed as a "music hall artiste"

A basic search of the site will be free of charge but to download a census image will cost 75p per page.

The initiative is part of the PRO's wider effort, Census Online, which aims to digitise all the earlier censuses before 1901.

The PRO has already started work on the 1881 and 1891 censuses and eventually plans to go back as far as 1841.

Studying 19th Century census data has previously required a visit to a local record office or library to find the returns for the local area.

Alternatively it meant a visit to the Family Records Centre in London, which houses the census returns for England and Wales from 1841 to 1891.

The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"Anyone who was living in England and Wales in March 1901 will have an entry"
Margaret Brennand of the Public Record Office
"Tracing family history is a very popular pastime"
See also:

31 Dec 01 | dot life
Dig up your family tree online
06 Dec 01 | England
No 'English' on the census form
09 Oct 01 | UK
Jedi makes the census list
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