History and Development of the Census in England and Wales

Author: The Forgotten Family, https://www.theforgottenfamily.co.uk


Historic census records form an integral part of genealogy research, but this was obviously not the reason why censuses were taken. This article will look at the ideas and reasons behind the development of the decennial censuses that were carried out in UK from the beginning of the 19th century. In addition to this, it will also be looking at the historic, modern, and future development of the census.

Census History and Background


Census Taking Relief on the Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, Rome, Italy, ca. 100BCE

Censuses are known to have been taken throughout the ancient empires such as the Babylonian, Persian, Egyptian, and Roman empire. The Romans, for example, carried out empire wide censuses every five years in order to enumerate the liabilities of the citizens of the empire. Unlike the modern census, the censuses carried out in the ancient world did not seek to include every person, or even a representative section of the people. They focussed instead on those within certain categories, such as family heads, men of military age, etc. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, systematic censuses were not, with the exception of the Domesday Book, carried out in the West on a regular basis until the second quarter of the 17th century when regular larger scale enumerations began to be carried out in some of the British North American colonies like Virginia. From 1665 to 1775, sixteen regular enumerations were conducted in New France (now Quebec) and Acadia (now Nova Scotia). By the middle of the 18th century, regular censuses started to be carried out in many places across Europe. [i]

In Denmark, for example, parish priests had long been keeping a record of the people within their parishes, although there was no country wide standard for how this information was recorded and collated. It was not until 1645-1646 that a standard was set by King Christian IV[ii] and not until over a century later that the first Danish census was carried out (in 1769). The 1769 census was not intended to provide much other information than the number of inhabitants in each parish, while the following census, taken in 1787 included information about a person’s address, sex, name, age marital status, occupation, etc. This was done in order inform the king of the state of the population rather than just their number. The early Danish censuses were carried out by the parish priests, who could deputise other members of the clergy and school teachers as enumerators. [iii]

The Census in the UK

The first large scale census in Great Britain was carried out in 1801. Prior this, the size of the population had been guessed at, but no comprehensive count existed. The estimate, which seems the most accurate, was provided in 1695 by George King, who calculated the population of England and Wales to be roughly 5.5 million (a century later the population had doubled). One of the reasons why censuses began to be held in the UK at the beginning of the 19th century was that there was a growing fear that the ever expanding population would reach a point where it could no longer feed itself. These fears were highlighted in Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principles of Population.[iv]

Malthus’ essay, which was published in 1798, argued, amongst other things, that the growth of the population was disproportionate to the increase in food production. It further suggests that this disproportionate growth “… to be decisive against the possible existence of a society, all members of which, should live in ease, happiness, and comparative leisure”. [v]

Initially, the idea of a census was met with reluctance as it was feared that the data collected by the officers would be used for taxation purposes. National security concerns were also raised, as it was seen as a possibility that enemies of the country could use the data to discover and exploit weaknesses in the country’s defences. [vi]

The need for an accurate population count and other statistical information won out over the fears, and the 1801 census saw the birth of the decennial census in Great Britain, which has been carried out every ten years since, with the exception of 1941. Only six questions appeared on the 1801 census and these regarded the number of occupied and unoccupied houses, the number of families, the number of adults and children, the number of people in the different occupations, the number of baptisms and burials, and the number of marriages within each surveyed area. These questions were supplied on proforma answer forms, which were pre-circulated to Town Clerks and Clerks of the Peace and through them to the Justices of the Peace, and High Constables or other Proper officers. The proforma sheets were then distributed to the Overseers of the Poor and substantial householders to be filled in. [vii]


1801 Census: Typical Overseer’s Book. Photograph Courtesy of The University of Essex

While the official census return did not require the names of individuals in an area, many of the proforma sheets returned by the overseers did. To keep the census scheduled organised, these would often include the name of the head of each household, or more rarely the names of each member of the household. The 1801 census divided the occupations into three different categories, namely agriculture, trade and manufacture/handicraft. Similar questions were posed by the 1811 census, although it also asked about the number of houses being built and rather than ask about the number of individuals being employed by the three occupation groups it asked about the number of families employed or maintained by them. In addition to these questions, the 1821 census asked basic questions about the age distribution of the population, so individual level recording was more likely to be included on the returned sheets. The proforma sheets for the 1831 census asked for much more detail about the occupations of the population, such as job roles within the three occupation industries. [viii]

More information was included within the 1841 census including the full name, sex, age, and occupation of each person within the household. The 1851 census included individuals living on vessels, British subjects living abroad, including those serving in the forces and with the East India Company. It also was the first census to record the relationship of each individual to the head of the household and whether any member of the household was “blind or dumb”. Only minor changes were made to the census forms over the next 50 years. These included whether any member of the household was an “imbecile or idiot” (on the census forms from 1871 to 1911); the 1881 census asked whether people were unemployed – this question occurred again on the 1931 census; the 1891 census asked whether a person was an employer or employee; in 1901 people were asked whether they worked from home. [ix]

Owing to concerns about the falling birth rates at the beginning of the 20th century, both the 1911 and 1921 censuses included questions regarding the fertility of marriage. These also made a distinction between occupation and industry. The scope of the census was reduced during the economic depression and the questions that had been added in 1911 and 1921 were dropped from the 1931 census. No census was taken in 1941 due to WWII, but the scope of the census was broadened again in 1951. The 1951 census included questions about place of work, household amenities, fertility, and educational standards. Over the following decades, the census continued to change with the times. From 1961, the census asked about educational and professional qualifications; from 1981 people have been asked about the number of cars and vans in the household; and from 2001, questions regarding health have been asked. [x]

Modern Uses of Census Data

Historically, the census have sought to ask questions relevant to what the government at the time has needed to know about the population as a whole. This is still the case today, as the decennial census provides the government with the vital statistical about the demographics of the population, which is needed in order to allocate resources make policies suitable to the need of the population. Information regarding people’s occupation can, for example, be collated to show how many people work within the different industries. This information can, in turn, be used to develop new job and training policies. Another example is the information regarding how people travel to and from work. This can be used to understand the pressures on the transport systems. [xi]

The Future of the UK Census

As technology continues to improve and data collection becomes increasingly more mechanised, it raises the question of whether we still need a decennial census. This question was explored in some detain in 2003 by the Office for National Statistics and a number of alternative models were discussed. One of the alternatives discussed was a continuous rolling census, such as that adopted in France. One way to do this would be to take an annual representative sample of the population of the Local Authority Districts or Census Output Areas.  While the obvious benefits to this would be the ability to monitor more closely the changing population of an area, it was felt that the loss of the direct full scale comparability between areas offered by the decennial census. Another option would be to adopt the system used in the US, where a large continuous survey (the American Community Survey) is carried out in conjunction with the decennial census. [xii] Another option explored was the possibility of linking administrative data already held by the Local Authorities and using this to extract the data needed for the census. The AREX experiment carried out by the US Census Bureau had already examined the feasibility of a similar Administrative Record Census approach and found that it was feasible. It was concluded by the Office for National Statistics that for this to work in the UK, single address and population registers would have to be developed. [xiii]

The next UK census is scheduled to be held in 2021 and it is intended that this will be carried out in the traditional way by a field force using paper/online data collection. In conjunction with this, the Census Transformation Programme seeks to implement the use of administrative data to supplement the data collected in the field. Following the census, this method of data collection will be evaluated in order to determine the best method for continuing the collection of census data beyond 2021. [xiv]


[i] Census 2017. Britannica Academic. Retrieved 15 January 2017, from http://academic.eb.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/levels/collegiate/article/22060

[ii] Kirkeministeriet 2015. Personregistreringens Historie. Retrieved 15 January 2017, from http://www.personregistrering.dk/om-personregistrering/personregistreringens-historie.html

[iii] Lademann, L. and Jensen, A. 2006, Folketӕllinger 1787-1950. Rigsarkivet, Copenhagen, Denmark

[iv] The National Archives 2009. Why Take a Census? Retrieved 17 January 2017, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/census/events/census2.htm

[v] Malthus, T. R. 1798. An Essay on the Principles of Population. J. Johnson, London.

[vi] The National Archives 2009. Why Take a Census? Retrieved 17 January 2017, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/census/events/census2.htm

[vii] Wall, R., Wollard, M. and Moring, B. 2004 (republished 2012), Census Schedules and Listings, 1801-1831: An Introduction and Guide. University of Essex, Colchester.

[viii] ibid.

[ix] The National Archives 2009. The Changing Census, 1801-1901. Retrieved 17 January 2017, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/census/events/census3.htm

[x] The National Archives 2012. The Changing Census, 1911-2011. Retrieved 17 January 2017, from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/census/events/census4.htm

[xi] Office for National Statistics 2017. Why We Have a Census. Retrieved 17 January 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census/whywehaveacensus

[xii] Office for National Statistics 2003. Information Paper: Census Strategic Development Review. Alternatives to a Census: Rolling Census. Office for National Statistics, London

[xiii] Office for National Statistics 2003. Information Paper: Census Strategic Development Review. Alternatives to a Census: Linkage of Available Sources. Office for National Statistics, London

[xiv] Office for National Statistics 2016. Census Transformation Programme: 2021 Census. Retrieved 17 January 2017, from https://data.london.gov.uk/census/beyond2011/


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