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What is a census?

Edward Higgs

Many listings of people in England in the past, especially those produced for taxation or Poor Law purposes, have been loosely referred to as 'censuses' by some historians and historical demographers. However, this term has a specific, modern meaning which helps to highlight some of the particular characteristics of census taking. According to the modern United Nations the essential features of a population and housing census are:

Other prerequisites of census taking flow from these main requirements. The census needs to have a sponsor that has the funds to organise the census, and the legal authority to compel people to take part in it. This usually means the State. The results of the census also need to be published, or the public use of the census is diminished.

Measured against these criteria the British censuses of the period 1801 to 1831 left something to be desired. The official enumerations organised by John Rickman, a clerk of the Houses of Parliament, were indeed held every ten years from 1801 onwards, they were intended to cover the whole country, and the results were published as parliamentary papers. However, Rickman merely asked the overseers of the poor in England and Wales, and schoolmasters in Scotland, to provide the raw numbers of people and houses in their parishes, variously sub-divided, by a certain date. Some local officials undertook unofficial local nominal censuses, indicating each named person in the parish, but this was not a necessary part of the census-taking machinery, and such enumerations were not forwarded to Rickman in London. Nor was there a specific date on which the census had to be taken – there was no 'simultaneity', so it was not a snap-shot (Higgs, 5–7).

The censuses undertaken by the General Register Office (GRO) in England and Wales from 1841 onwards, and in Scotland by a separate Scottish GRO from 1861 onwards, were true censuses in the United Nations' terms. That is, each householder was mandated by law to record on a census schedule the details of each member of their household on one night in the year, and this was the data from which the subsequent Census reports were compiled. The only slight exception to this was in the case of the merchant marine where ships arriving in port in a set period after census night were also to be enumerated (Higgs, 10–15, 40–4).

The GRO recognised this new departure in census taking at the time. Thus, according to the 1841 Enumeration abstract the censuses prior to that year: "... differed entirely from the plan adopted in 1841. Questions referring to the numbers, ages, and occupations of the persons to be enumerated within … [the overseers of the poor's] … parishes were delivered to them, to which they were to return answers, the result of their own enquiries, while the work was directed to be performed by them day after day, if one day was found insufficient, till all answers to all the queries were obtained."

Upon the present occasion, the information required, embraced not only the particulars furnished in 1831, but also the exact age, occupation, and place of birth of each person; the Act moreover directed that the business of numbering the people should be completed "in one day," in order to obviate the chance of inaccuracy from omissions or double entries to which the extension on the inquiry over a greater period might have given rise (Abstract return pursuant to Act for taking account of population of GB. Enumeration abstract, p 1).

From 1841 onwards the decennial enumeration in the British Isles have been true censuses as understood by the United Nations.


Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain," and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an account of the population." Enumeration Abstract, BPP 1843 XXII (496). [View this document: Enumeration abstract, 1841]

Department of Economic and Social Affairs Statistics Division, United Nations, Principles and recommendations for population and housing censuses. Revision 1 (New York: United Nations, 1998).

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