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Census of England and Wales, 1911

Edward Higgs

The 1911 census, held on 2/3 April of that year, was significant in a number of ways. First, it contained a survey of marital fertility in which questions were asked about the births of all children of married women. This was the first time that information other than that pertaining to the actual residents of households on Census night had been sought. Secondly, the extra work involved in analysing this and other new information supplied in the census threatened to overburden the manual forms of data handling used in the General Register Office (GRO) in the previous censuses. This led to the introduction of the machine tabulation of data. In addition, the analysis of the 1911 census returns, and the publication of results, were interrupted by the First World War. The final volume on the 1911 fertility survey was not published until 1923.

The 1911 census asked for all the information sought on household members in 1901 — relationship to head, age and sex, marital status, occupation, employment status, whether working at home, birthplaces and medical infirmities. But a number of new columns were introduced into the schedule, relating to the nationality of people born outside of the country, the 'industry or service with which [the] worker is connected', and lastly the children born to married women. The latter was a tri-part enquiry, asking for the total number of children born alive to the present marriage, the number still alive, and the number who had died (Szreter, 1996, 604–5). The industrial question seems to have reflected the desire of the Labour Department of the Board of Trade to gain information on the number of people, especially recipients of unemployment benefits under the 1911 National Insurance Act, who would be affected by downturns in particular trades (Davidson, 195–6). The inquiry into marital fertility was introduced to provide data on whether the poorer classes were having more children than those higher in the social scale. This was linked to the concerns of eugenicists, who believed that this was leading to the genetic decline of the British 'imperial race' at a time of imperial and economic crisis. In order to undertake a class-based analysis of the fertility data, the GRO developed a socio-economic classification, which placed families into five classes according to the occupations of household heads (Higgs, 2004, 129–55; Szreter, 1984; Szreter, 1996, 1–282).

The 1911 fertility survey was an important development in its own right, but just as important for the future were the consequences this had for the data processing capabilities of the GRO. Prior to this date, the clerks in the GRO had abstracted data from the enumerators' books on large sheets of paper. In the case of occupational abstraction, the tabling sheets were large pieces of paper with occupational headings down one side and age ranges across the top. These headings were ruled across the sheet, creating a matrix of boxes into which the census clerks were to place a tick for an occurrence in the enumerators' returns of a person of the relevant age and occupation (Higgs, 1996a, 155–6). In order to analyse the fertility data, and that gathered by the other new census enquiries, the Office introduced the use of Hollerith machine tabulators. These had been developed in 1890 for the US census of that year, and were being introduced into state statistical offices across Europe. The take-up of such technology was a consequence of the increasing size and complexity of national census enumerations across the Western world as a whole in a period of increasing state engagement with social issues. Tabulation was done directly from the household schedules, and as a result the latter were no longer copied by enumerators into enumeration books for dispatch to the Census Office as in previous years (Higgs, 1996b).

In 1901, the census publications had included a large number of individual volumes covering all the data for each county, and this was also to be the pattern in 1921 and 1931. But in 1911 a different strategy was pursued. As in previous years, the first volumes to be published were preliminary reports. First, a preliminary report was issued in 1911 giving bare data on the population (individuals and families) in administrative, registration and parliamentary areas (Census of England and Wales, 1911, Preliminary report with tables of the population...). This was followed in the next year by four volumes (Volumes I–IV) giving more detailed figures for the areas, numbers of families and population in administrative, registration, parliamentary and ecclesiastical areas. An index to named places in these volumes made up Volume V. The years 1912 and 1913 also saw the publication of a number of individual volumes (Volumes VI–XI) covering specific characteristics of the population, including age and marital condition, birthplaces, occupations and industries, language spoken, and physical and mental infirmities. The final volume to be published before the First World War was, as in former years, a volume dedicated to the Isle of Man and Channel Islands (Census of England and Wales, 1911, Islands of the British Seas …).

The outbreak of the First World War hit the GRO hard. Not only did many of its staff leave for the Front, it also had to take on new duties, such as providing evidence of marriage and paternity for the payment of allowances to the dependents of soldiers and sailors. It also took on the organization of National Registration, which was the basis of conscription and rationing (Higgs, 2004, 186–8). The appearance of the rest of the volumes of the 1911 census was delayed as a result. In the parliamentary session 1914–16 two volumes were released, a list of occupations and rules for their classification, and a series of summary tables (Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. X. Appendix; Census of England and Wales, 1911, Summary tables). The 1917–18 session saw the publication of a General Report, with an updated series of summary tables, and of tables summarizing data from the fertility of marriage survey (Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report with appendices; Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. XIII. Fertility of marriage. Part I). But it was in 1923, two years after the first results of the 1921 census had been published, that the final discursive report on the fertility of marriage survey was published. This was the first paper giving results from the census that was not a Parliamentary Paper, a pattern followed in subsequent years (Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. XII. Fertility of marriage. Part II).


Census of England and Wales, 1911, Preliminary report with tables of the population enumerated in England and Wales (Administrative, Registration, and Parliamentary Areas) and in Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands on 3rd April 1911 BPP 1911 LXXI. [View this document: Preliminary report, England and Wales, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, Islands of the British Seas; Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey and adjacent Islands BPP 1913 LXXX. [View this document: Islands in the British Seas, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. X. Appendix. Classified and alphabetical lists of occupations and the rules adopted for classification BPP 1914–16 LXXXI. [View this document: Occupations (Appendix), England and Wales, Vol. X, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, Summary tables BPP 1914–16 LXXXI.385. [View this document: Summary tables, England and Wales, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. XIII. Fertility of marriage. Part I. BPP 1917–18 XXXV. [View this document: Fertility of marriage (part I), 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report with appendices BPP 1917–18 XXXV. [View this document: General report, England and Wales, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. XII. Fertility of marriage. Part II (London: HMSO, 1923). [View this document: Fertility of marriage (part II), 1911]

Roger Davidson, Whitehall and the labour problem in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain (London, 1985).

Edward Higgs, A clearer sense of the census: the Victorian census and historical research (London, 1996a).

Edward Higgs, 'The statistical Big Bang of 1911: ideology, technological innovation and the production of medical statistics', Social History of Medicine, 9 (1996b), 409–26.

Edward Higgs, Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837–1952 (Hatfield, 2004).

Szreter, Simon, 'The genesis of the registrar-general's social classification of occupations', The British Journal of Sociology, 35 (1984), 522–46.

Simon Szreter, Fertility, class and gender in Britain 1860–1940 (Cambridge, 1996).