How to Cope with Illegible Pages

There will always be illegible pages in census books and unfortunately there is nothing we can do about it. Luckily, there are some tips to help cope with illegible pages.

What are the common causes for illegible pages?

Poor, faded ink or pencil

Damaged pages

Dark films

Can anything be done?

This is the most common cause of illegible pages in genealogy research. In actual fact, the number of such pages in a set of census enumerators’ books is very small indeed. But it does happen, and yes, it is somewhat disappointing if the pages that you need to read fall into that category.

Please do not complain to the National Archive, the person who did the original filming, or the person who digitised the images to put them onto CD or a web page. There is nothing that they can do about it. The only person to whom one can complain is the enumerator who wrote in the original book using poor quality (or even watered down!) ink. Unfortunately, that person is long since dead.

How to a Spot Good Quality Census Book

  1. The printed words on all of the pages done by that enumerator are really nice and black and perfectly legible. But the hand written words are really difficult to read. Very feint indeed. That tells you that the film is OK, and that the scanning is OK. It is just incredibly feint handwriting.
  2. On those suspect pages, there will often be some words that have been written using a different pen, or the enumerator will have made his “crossing” marks in a different pen and ink. Those are always perfectly legible. They were added in a different pen and ink (afterwards). The remainder of the words are very feint. That tells you again that the film is OK, and that the scanning is OK. It is just incredibly feint handwriting.
  3. The problem will appear on one small set of pages, written by one particular enumerator. Not on the whole film, or the whole book. That tells you again that the film is OK, and that the scanning is OK. It is just incredibly feint handwriting.

It would have been OK and legible at the time it was written, but wasn’t by the time it was filmed 100+ years later. The problem only applies to the few pages written by that one enumerator.

Unfortunately, it is just one of those things we have to live with. I am sure, however, that if one could get access to the original book, then much of it would still be legible to the human eye, or under ultra-violet light.

Under very special circumstances, it is possible to visit the National Archives at Kew and ask to view the original books. If it is important enough, and you are convinced that your ancestor is on one of those pages, then I guess that would count as “special circumstances”. I doubt very much indeed, however, if they would allow the book to go under a photocopier to let you walk away with a copy. The intense light from a photocopier would make the ink fade more!

Transcribing Damaged Pages

There are some damaged pages in the census enumerators’ books. Some are torn, some have parts of the pages missing, some are damaged by water and staining, and some are missing completely.

The worst census pages that I have ever seen were like dark brown paper bags with no handwriting on them. They had been damaged by water.

The most common place for pages to be damaged (torn or stained) is at the end of a census piece book. In fact, most are!

Below: a damaged page, with some staining at the edges

Below: a stained page. (Some are much worse!)

Transcribing Dark Pages

Sometimes we get the opposite problem to faded pages, or pages that are darkened by staining (see above). The symptom is that the image is too dark. So dark that, for example, the letters “o”, “e” and “a” become difficult to read because the centre of the letter is black. In such cases this will apply to both the hand written words and the printed words on the page.

The problem is caused by over exposed filming or filming which was slightly out of focus. Almost all census filming was done in pure black and white rather than “grey scale”, so it isn’t possible to say that images produced from one particular census is much better, and therefore something is wrong with the scanning of another. It all depends on the quality of the original films, and you may be comparing grey scale films with good black & white films, and with over exposed films. We just have to take the rough with the smooth. It’s just how they are, and nothing can be done about it!

Note: it is not usually the whole film which is over exposed, it is some pages that were over exposed at the time of filming. The following images illustrate this:

Above: an image that was grossly over-exposed at the time of filming of the original page. Nothing whatsoever can be done about this situation when the films are digitised. The black is black, and no amount of enhancement can correct that.

Below: for comparison, another image from the *same film*. A page that was correctly exposed at the time of filming.

Above – a different case: Even at this magnification you can see that the top of the image is good, whilst at the bottom of the page it is very poor indeed. This is caused by uneven lighting at the time the photograph was taken. The effect is that the exposure is incorrect at the bottom, making the words extremely difficult to read. No amount of “playing” with the scanned image can correct this.

And below: a worst case scenario. Over exposure plus uneven lighting plus water staining.

Finally, don’t let this page give you the wrong impression. The vast majority of census page images are fine! What we have done here, is give you some examples of the minority that are the bad ones.

Can anything be done about illegible pages?

In most cases, yes.

What is needed is for the original census enumerators’ books to be scanned and digitised in grey scale using the latest state of the art scanners. In other words, to forget the films that were made in the 1970s and start from scratch.

So why isn’t it being done?

There are many reasons, but the main ones are:

  1. The immensity of the task

There are millions and millions of pages of the original census books, which would take many years to scan.

  1. The cost

Who is going to pay for the immense task to be carried out? Where will the money come from? The exercise would cost tens of millions of pounds.

  1. Accessibility to the originals

The original census enumerator’s books are stored at the National Archives at Kew in London. They are stored in safe vaults, and don’t come out.

Below: a grey scale scan of an 1821 census page. The writing is a mixture of ink and pencil, and the original is quite faded. Click on the image to see a larger size page.


This image is a reduced quality image for the web in JPG format. The original scanned image is a TIFF image which is larger and of much higher quality.

The handwriting on the page is a mixture of faded ink and pencil. The paper is browned and foxed. The vertical grey lines are the watermark in the paper!

But this is an example of what could be done if the original census enumerator’s books were scanned using a modern state of the art scanner. Most of the 1841 to 1901 original books held at the National Archives are in much better condition than this very old one of 1821.

Are you still struggling to decipher illegible pages?

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