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Monday, 7 January, 2002, 15:25 GMT
Census website's elusive results
Screen grab of attempted link to 1901 census site
Census information 2001 style
By BBC News Online's Chris Hamilton

Queen Victoria died in the year of the 1901 census and for the thousands trying to access it online a century later it has so far mainly been a case of "we are not amused".

I am among them, having tried to track down the site's holy grail: a digital scan of the original entry for an ancestor, in my case a great great grandfather.

I knew he was 72 at the time of the census, where he lived, where he was born and how he earned his living.

Unfortunately after hours of work spread over several days I found out little more.

The site has been swamped. Originally designed for 1.2m users a day, it has attracted that number an hour with only a lucky few completing their searches.

Quick early access

In fact my early efforts were the most successful, and probably lulled me into a false sense of hope.

I accessed the census homepage so quickly considering the predictions of a busy first day for the site I wondered if I had somehow stumbled on a secret route there.

I managed to open the 'read me first' instruction pages with similar ease and, holding my breath, hit "person search".

Two hours later I was still hitting it, having yielded nothing more hopeful than "page not found".

Frustrated, my eye was caught by the ship search button, a gimmick to route you to information about any of the thousands of marine vessels entered on the 1901 census.

People are getting on, having worthwhile and fulfilling visits, finding the information they want and going away happy

Spokesman for website operators QinetiQ
With my limited marine knowledge and no history of seafaring in the family I was not confident of unearthing anything of interest, which a series of "page not found" returns simply reinforced.

Back to person searching... and suddenly I was in. Or so I thought.

As advised I kept my initial search as wide as possible, entering just the first and last names of the person I was looking for.

More long delays and several re-starts later and up came a list of five matches recorded on the census, alongside each person's basic details (age, place of birth, place of residence for the census and occupation).

It doesn't sound that exciting but for me there was a satisfying sense of a glimpse back through history - although frustration at the failings of modern technology soon put paid to that.

Back to square one

With none of the five listed corresponding to my ancestor I hit the button to take me to the next five.

My on screen egg timer blinked for a few minutes, delivered a "page not found" and I was back to square one.

A torturous hour later I finally found the correct entry and clicked on the icon by his name to bring up the original digitally scanned entry, as written out by the census enumerator in 1901.

We are very aware of the great disappointment that a lot of people have experienced in not being able to access the 1901 Census site

Public Record Office website
Apparently it doesn't reveal much more information but it was still an intriguing prospect.

Who else lived in the household with him? Maybe he would be recorded as deaf and dumb, an imbecile or even insane (of a non-genetic variety, of course).

But before I could find out it was crunch time. They wanted my money.

After reams of explanatory text about account sessions costing 5 and downloads from 50p I prepared to fill out the details they wanted.

And that was as far as I would get.

Yet again the page wasn't found. Yet again I tried starting again, each time getting less far than the last.

International users

On Friday the site was suspended for emergency maintenance work, on Monday access was being "restricted", though to whom was not clear.

A press officer at QinetiQ, which runs the site in partnership with the Public Record Office, said people from as far afield as New Zealand and Africa were enjoying fulfilling visits.

Work was being done to improve the site's capacity and once the "early teething problems" were sorted out and initial interest had died down, he predicted, access would be easier.

So until then, at least, my personal holy grail and whether or not it would reveal an imbecile in the family will remain elusive.

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:

04 Jan 02 | UK
Tracing your lineage online
03 Jan 02 | UK
Census website still jammed
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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