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banner Wednesday, 2 January, 2002, 12:10 GMT
Surfing the 1901 census
Crowd in London
Ever wondered who you might be related to?
Once upon a time, tracing your forebears meant trawling through dusty documents in local records offices. Now the 1901 census has gone online for those who wish to track relatives without leaving home.

Ever wondered who might be nestled in your family tree?

Until the advent of the internet, finding out whether you might be 57th in line for the throne - or related to a sheep rustler - meant a jaunt down to the local public records office at the very least.

Queen Mother and her brother
Meet the ancestors: The Queen Mum in the 1900s
For those descended from Britons who long ago left the country's shores, it was an altogether more complex task.

Now, more and more amateur family historians are turning to the internet to search for information on their forebears. And to that end, the Public Records Office made the 1901 census results available on its website from 2 January, the first time the English and Welsh returns have been put on the net.

Work has already begun on scanning in the 1891 and 1881 results, undertaken by data analysts at QinetiQ, the newly privatised arm of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. A similar scheme is underway in Scotland.

International appeal

Information gatherers will be able to search by name, place, institution or vessel for more than 32 million people.

Woolworths circa 1900s
Search by name, address or workplace
Those who live in a house more than 100 years old will also be able to see who lived there at the beginning of the last century.

Although basic searches will be free, those wishing to view images or transcripts of the original census pages will be charged a nominal fee.

Margaret Brennard, of the Census Online project, expects there to be considerable interest both here and abroad. Census returns are, after all, the most popular resource at the Public Records Office.

"There's a lot of interest in family history in the American market, in Australia, New Zealand - anywhere our ancestors emigrated to. And a recent survey showed that researching family history is the third most popular activity on the internet."

The search engine Ask Jeeves, for instance, is bombarded with 50,000 genealogical questions from the UK each month.

Try and try again

The Public Records Office trialled the system earlier this year when it put the 1891 returns for Norfolk online. Those with relatives in the county were able to browse more than half-a-million names.

Researching family history is the third most popular activity on the internet

Margaret Brennard
Among those trying out the searches were American family historians at the National Genealogical Society's conference in Portland, Oregon.

From the feedback received a number of changes were made, such as improving the digital image of the original entries and allowing users to search using just a first name.

"This can really narrow it down if your forebear has an unusual name - Israel was one that came up in the trial," says Ms Brennard.

But just remember: those dreams of discovering a long-lost link to the landed gentry may turn into a more prosaic reality.

That distant great-great-great grandfather from whom you inherited your distinguished good looks may well have been a peasant.

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