Associated Content

The workplace

Edward Higgs

The British censuses in the nineteenth century had little to say about the places in which people worked. The early censuses from 1801 to 1831 asked local parish officials for the numbers of persons or families 'chiefly employed' in broad economic sectors in the parish (Higgs, 1989, 5–7). One might assume that this gave the numbers physically so working within the parish but this is in no sense guaranteed. In the towns people must have moved from parishes of residence to others where they worked. Even in the countryside, agricultural workers might live in one 'open' parish, where they could obtain accommodation. But they might work in another 'closed' parish where work was available on the land, but landowners restricted housing to avoid having to pay the poor rates.

From 1841 onwards census taking was the responsibility of the General Register Office (GRO), and the local civil registrars of births, marriages and deaths who were administered by it. The registrars appointed temporary enumerators, who collected information about the inmates of households by giving householders a household schedule. These were to be filled out by the householder using instructions provided, and were then copied into books by the enumerators. The household schedules asked for personal occupation, and, from 1891 onwards, for employment status (employer, employed, 'working on own account'). But the schedules did not ask for information on where one worked, or the name and address of employers (Higgs, 1989, 120–126). The GRO was interested in occupational data for the purposes of calculating occupational life-tables for actuarial and medical purposes, and for broad economic analysis. Information on the industry or workplace in which occupations were carried on was of less concern (Higgs, 1991).

In the late nineteenth century other government department began to have a greater say in what questions were asked in the census, and workplace data began to be collected. In 1901, for example, another column was added to the schedule in which householders were to indicate if people were 'working at home'. This appears to have been at the behest of the Home Office, which was considering legislating to regulate the 'sweated trades' (Higgs, 1989, 17). This question was repeated in 1911. Also in 1911, a number of new columns were introduced into the schedule, including one relating to the 'industry or service with which [the] worker is connected'. But this did not ask for the address of the employer for whom the person worked. 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).

In 1921 the census was expanded to include a question on place of work (a statement as to address of employer, or 'no fixed place', or 'at home'). This was partly to enable an analysis of the transport problems caused by the movement of people from the suburbs to their places of employment, and to get a better idea of housing needs. Both the Ministry of Transport and the Housing Board had pressed for this information (National Archives, London: RG 19/52, 73). The GRO was also conscious that the dissociation between where people were active during the day and slept at night created problems for the traditional understanding of the effect of place on people's lives. For example, if people worked in one place but lived in another, how would it be possible to examine the environmental causes of mortality in a particular location (Census of England and Wales, 1921. General report with appendices, 190, 202–3)? The question on the address of employers was repeated in 1931, but did not appear to allow one to state 'no fixed place', or 'at home', as in 1921.

The results of the workplace survey in the 1921 census were presented in detail in three tables of the volume on Workplaces (Census of England and Wales, 1921. Workplaces). The first classified the occupied population of each sex in an area in terms of: workplace in the area; no fixed workplace; workplace not stated; workplace outside the area. The others showed aggregate movements into and out of places. Although a question on workplace was asked in the 1931 census, little seems to have been done to analyze and publish the results.


Census of England and Wales, 1921. General report with appendices (London: HMSO, 1927). [View this document: General report, England and Wales, 1921]

Census of England and Wales, 1921, Workplaces (London: HMSO, 1925). [View this document: Workplaces, England and Wales, 1921]

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

Edward Higgs, Making sense of the census. The manuscript returns for England and Wales, 1801–1901 (London, 1989).

Edward Higgs, 'Diseases, febrile poisons, and statistics: the census as a medical survey', Social History of Medicine, 4, (1991), 465–78.

TNA RG 19/52. Census Sub-committees: notes of proceedings; correspondence.