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Unlocking the Past: The 1901 Census Online

The 1901 census website is now running successfully and problems originally encountered when the Public Record Office and QinetiQ implemented the site in January 2002 have been overcome. Moreover, according to todays report to Parliament by NAO head Sir John Bourn, the lessons learned will be valuable to government and other public sector bodies planning to make services available on the Internet.

The Public Record Office had planned a low key launch for the website which provides online access to the results of the 1901 census. However, press coverage on the day the website was launched was more extensive than expected and resulted in overwhelming demand. By noon on the launch day, 2 January 2002, 1.2 million users an hour were attempting to access the site, which had been designed to cope with a peak of 1.2 million users in a 24 hour period.

The site was withdrawn on 7 January 2002 and QinetiQ instigated technical reviews. Agreement on the changes required to launch a working website was achieved with the assistance of the Office of the e-Envoy. The site was made available with restricted access on 27 August 2002. And, in November 2002, full access, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was restored. The site now receives between 8,000 and 10,000 visitors a day and has generated some 4.5 million up to 31 October 2003.

Todays report points out that the Public Record Office had previous experience of managing information technology projects. However, lacking the resources to fund the development of an online service for the 1901 census, it implemented and managed the project through a PPP arrangement with QinetiQ whose agreed development costs were some 8 million. The project is intended to be self-financing with QinetiQ incurring the investment and development costs and the ongoing operating costs. Once QinetiQ has recovered agreed development costs, the National Archives (formed in April 2003 from the merger of the Public Record Office and Historical Manuscripts Commission) and QinetiQ will share equally the net revenues from the service generated by charges levied for access to documents from the website.

Todays report concludes that the Public Record Office managed the main risks associated with the project for example, by recognising that it did not have all the skills in-house to complete the project alone, by conducting research into potential levels of demand and by transferring the development risk to a contractor. However, the Public Record Office could not have transferred the risk to its reputation if the project had not succeeded.

Other government departments and agencies providing services via the internet can learn from the way in which the Public Record Office made the 1901 census available online and how it overcame the problems which arose. The principal lessons are:

The key recommendations for the National Archives are as follows:

"The project to provide online access to the 1901 census was ambitious and, ultimately, successful. In implementing the project, the Public Record Office and its contractor QinetiQ encountered a number of problems which they managed to resolve eventually. It is important that the wider public sector learns the lessons from this project when implementing projects to provide access to services online. Looking forward, the National Archives should also consider these lessons if it decides to provide online access to the results of the 1911 census."

Commenting on the report, Sir John

Notes for Editors


  1. The Public Record Office has a statutory duty to make census information available to the public following the 100 year period during which the records were closed to public access. Previous censuses are available on microfiche and microfilm at the Family Records Centre in Islington. The Public Record Office decided that the website would be launched on the same day as access to the data was required by statute: 2 January 2002.
  2. The 1901 census is available on line at Initial access to the website and a search of the index is free. Viewing transcribed data cost 50 pence for an individual item and then 50 per pence for a list of all those in that persons household. Viewing a digital image costs 75 pence. Payment is by credit or debit cards online, or through the purchase of prepaid vouchers.
  3. QinetiQs website is
  4. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website at Hard copies can be obtained from The Stationery Office on 0845 702 3474.
  5. The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, is the head of the National Audit Office which employs some 800 staff. He and the NAO are totally independent of Government. He certifies the accounts of all Government departments and a wide range of other public sector bodies; and he has statutory authority to report to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which departments and other bodies have used their resources.


PN: 69/03