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The development of population statistics

Edward Higgs

Census taking has a long history going back to the Roman Empire and beyond. In seventeenth-century England, Sir William Petty called for the establishment of a general register of vital events to collate parish registers, and thus reveal the numbers married, the age structure of the population, the occupational and religious distribution, and the wealth of any area. Petty's friend, John Graunt, suggested in his Natural and political observations, published in 1661, that "Government may be made more certain, and regular", if it was known how many people there were of each 'sex, state, age, religion, trade, rank, or degree, etc.'. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European states and their colonies used censuses to take stock of their military resources in an age of continual wars (Glass, 1978, 12–13).

The association between warfare and census-taking has led postmodernists to see the development of the latter in terms of new forms of 'governmentality' associated with the need to foster 'biopower'. In a situation of constant warfare, states came to see their subjects as 'population' that needed to be fostered and expanded in the interests of military survival (Foucault, 1982; Foucault, 1991). But this may be too simplistic a model to explain census taking in the Anglo-Saxon world, since neither Britain nor the USA had, or needed, a standing army until the twentieth century. In many ways the first US census of 1790 was the first modern enumeration. This was because of the size of the area enumerated, the attempt to obtain information on certain characteristics of all individuals in the population, and because of the political purpose for which it was undertaken — the apportionment of representation in Congress (Anderson, 1988).

In England in the 1750s the debate over population related to whether or not it had increased since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Conservative defenders of the agricultural interest agreed with political radicals in believing that the population of England had declined under the dominance of a Whig aristocracy and the rising commercial classes. Commerce and political jobbery were seen as having caused a general moral and sexual debauchment that had led to population decline (Glass, 1978, 11–89). Similar views were held by radicals such as William Cobbett in the early nineteenth century (Cobbett, 1983, 67). Others defended the rise of commerce and claimed that the population had increased since 1688. Much of this debate revolved around population estimates based upon taxation records and the ecclesiastical registers of baptisms, marriages and burials (Glass, 1978, 11–89).

In 1753 a bill 'for taking and registering an annual account of the total number of people, and the total number of marriages, births and burials; and also the total number of poor receiving alms in every parish, and extraparochial place, in Great Britain was introduced into Parliament (Glass, 1973, contains a copy of the bill). This may have been linked to the population controversy because the aim of the bill was stated as being to establish the 'progressive increase or diminution' of the population (Glass, 1973, 1). In this the wording was surprisingly similar to that contained in the Census Act, 1800 (41 Geo. III c. 15). The 1753 bill provided that each year the overseers of the poor (or the clerks of the kirk-session in Scotland) were to go from house to house in their parishes recording the number of people in each house. They were to distinguish separately for men and women the numbers under 20 years, aged 20 to 59, and those 60 years and over. The numbers of married persons, those receiving poor relief in the previous 12 months, and the total amount of poor relief, were also to be noted. The local clergy were to record baptisms and burial within the parish, whether of members of the Church of England or not, in a special registry book, giving details of names, sex, age, addresses of next of kin, and so on. Duplicates of these were to be given to the overseers of the poor each year, and the latter were to give an abstract of these to the chief constable of the hundred or division, who was to pass them on to the clerk of the peace. This officer was to keep the duplicates for the county but forward the abstracts to the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations, who were to produce national abstracts of the numbers of births and deaths from them, and of population numbers from the overseers returns.

Glass, drawing upon The Gentleman's Magazine for 1753, argues that the bill's supporters hoped that these measures would allow the calculation of the maximum size of any army which could be raised in times of need; provide evidence as to the desirability of emigration to the colonies; and show the burden of the Poor Law on the country (Glass, 1978, p 19). This may be true but the bill itself reveals other concerns, which link the 1753 proposals more closely with later, nineteenth-century, developments. First, the bill argued that the registration of vital events was necessary since, 'great inconveniences have arisen from the present defective manner in which parochial registers are formed, and the loose and uncertain method in which they are kept and preserved; whereby the evidence of descent is frequently lost and rendered precarious... (Glass, 1973, 1–2). The need to underpin rights to title to property via recording lines of descent was also the main reason for the establishment of the system of civil registration administered by the General Register Office under the 1836 Registration Act (Higgs, 2004, Chapter 1).

Similarly, the bill also envisaged the data collected on population and vital events as being used to create a national system of Bills of Mortality (Glass, 1973, p. 11), and Buck has linked the bill to political calculations respecting the insurance of lives (Buck, 1982, 32). Data on population, births and deaths was required so as to be able to draw up life tables, and so relieve poverty through the creation of actuarially sound insurance and friendly societies. This was also a feature of the early nineteenth-century censuses under John Rickman, and of the early statistical work of the General Register Office (Higgs, 1989, 4–7; Higgs, 2004, Chapters 2 and 3).

The opponents of the 1753 bill argued that the proposed enumeration would be impractical and costly, and might be used as the basis of new taxation and conscription. This needs to be set in terms of eighteenth-century 'Country' opposition to the power of the 'Court'. Given the eighteenth-century perception of a standing army as the first step to the establishment of an absolute monarchy, the violence of the opposition to the bill is perhaps understandable. Memories of the attempt by James II to establish just such a government through an army loyal to the Crown, and to reintroduce Roman Catholicism, were still very much alive. Similarly, the proposal to register lines of descent through the state smacked of the manner in which the monarchy before the English Civil Wars had used the Court of Wards and inquisitions post mortem as a means of controlling the estates of minors for the purposes of pillaging them. Nevertheless, the bill passed through all its stages in the Commons and received its second reading in the Lords. It was, however, referred to a Committee of the Whole House, and before this could meet the parliamentary session ended and the bill lapsed (Glass, 1973, 'A letter to a member of parliament...'; Glass, 1978, 17–21; Rusnock, 2002, 183–8).


Margo Anderson, The American census: a social history (New Haven, 1988).

Peter Buck, 'People who counted: political arithmetic in the eighteenth century', Isis, 73 (1982), 28–l45.

William Cobbett, Rural rides (Harmondsworth, 1983).

Michel Foucault, 'The subject and power', in Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow eds, Michel Foucault: beyond structuralism and hermeneutics, with an afterward by Michel Foucault (Brighton, 1982), 208–26.

Michel Foucault, 'Governmentality', in Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller, eds, The Foucault effect: studies in governmentality (London, 1991), 87–104.

D. V. Glass, The development of population statistics (Farnborough, 1973).

D. V. Glass, Numbering the people. The eighteenth-century population controversy and the development of census and vital statistics in Britain (London, 1973).

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

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

Andrea A. Rusnock, Vital accounts: quantifying health and population in eighteenth-century England and France (Cambridge,2002).