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Edward Higgs

The administration of the censuses of Britain in the years 1801 to 1831 was the responsibility of John Rickman, a clerk of the Houses of Parliament. The British censuses of 1841 and 1851, and the censuses of England and Wales from 1861 onwards, were administered by the General Register Office (GRO). On the whole, Rickman and the GRO had a fairly free hand in the organisation of most of the nineteenth-century enumerations. However, there were occasions when other bodies had formal input into the census-taking process.

In May 1830, for example, a parliamentary committee met to discuss the 'Bill for taking an account of the population and the increase or diminution thereof', which eventually became the 1830 Census Act (11 Geo. IV & Will. IV, c.30). The committee's only witness was John Rickman (1771-1840) who discussed his plans for the forthcoming census of 1831, including his proposals for more extensive questions on the occupations of the population. The minutes of evidence were published along with copies of Rickman's correspondence with William Frend and Joshua Milne on the actuarial uses of the census, and with Sir Francis D'Invernois on the accuracy of the returns (Committee on the Bill for taking Account of the Population of Great Britain).

From its inception in 1834, the Royal Statistical Society (the Statistical Society of London until 1887) was active in making proposals for the forthcoming censuses. Its census report of April 1840 suggested a radical change in the organisation of the census. The members of its census committee advocated the use of an official household schedule to list each individual by name, and to give various pieces of information about them. They also called for a greater range of questions relating to age, sex, marital status, occupation, place of birth, religion and health. Eventually many of their recommendations were incorporated into the 1841 census, although the range of questions asked was much diminished. A similar committee made recommendation for the 1851 census, including the taking of a census of education (Cullen, 96–7; Glass and Taylor, 14–15). In 1870 some of the suggestions of the members of the Statistical Society to the Home Secretary regarding the forthcoming census were published as a parliamentary paper. They called for the repeat of the educational and religious censuses of 1851, and criticised the occupational information contained in the 1861 Census reports (Suggestions to Home Department by Statistical Society). But in this case the proposals of the Society did not bear fruit.

On the whole these interventions were fairly mild mannered, but later in the century there was a rather more concerted attempt to wrest control of the planning of the census from the grasp of the GRO, centred round the activities of the 1890 Treasury Committee on the Census. This arose out of a deputation of social scientists, led by the social investigator Charles Booth and the economist Alfred Marshall, to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the President of the Local Government Board (LGB) in 1888. The formal demands of the deputation included:

According to Simon Szreter, this deputation and the resulting Committee was an attempt by social scientists to wrest control of the occupational census from the GRO. Booth and Marshall were attempting to shift its underlying organisational principles away from a medical model of the effects of working with materials on health, to one more suitable for economic and social analysis (Szreter, 114–20). The appointment of the Treasury Committee was plainly a very important challenge to the autonomy of the GRO, especially given the presence on the Committee of Sir Reginald Welby, the Treasury's permanent secretary.

The actual recommendations of the Committee were somewhat similar to the original proposals of the social scientists:

The GRO supported the first three recommendations, and they were interrelated, since if there was a census every five years there would be work for a permanent census establishment, and a permanent Census Act would be necessary for its funding. A quinquennial census was sought by both the GRO and medical officers of health because it would allow more accurate calculation of local death rates. But Welby argued against these proposals on the grounds of cost in a minority report, and they were not implemented (Report of the Treasury Committee on the Census, xiii-xiv). Welby suggested instead a system whereby local councils could pay for a quinquennial census if they wanted one. The GRO thus had the worst of all possible outcomes — it had to respond to the distraction of demands for local enumerations, without having the extra permanent resources to undertake them.

The GRO also opposed any extensions to the census schedule but it was just these aspects of the Committee's recommendations that were adopted by the government and introduced in the 1891 census, at the insistence of the LGB and despite the GRO's continuing opposition (Higgs, 126–7). As Szreter notes, the GRO henceforth included representatives from other government departments in internal committees planning the census (Szreter, 119–20). The GRO thus lost its exclusive control over the form of the decennial enumeration, and a number of innovations were subsequently introduced into the census questions (Higgs, 127).


Committee on the Bill for taking Account of the Population of Great Britain, BPP 1830 IV.721, 733. [View this document: Committee on Bill for taking Account of the population of GB]

Michael J Cullen, The statistical movement in early Victorian Britain: the foundations of empirical social research (Hassocks, 1975).

D. V. Glass and P. A. M. Taylor, Population and emigration: government and society in nineteenth century Britain (Dublin, 1976).

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

Report of the Treasury Committee on the Census, BPP 1890 LVIII (C.6071). [View this document: Treasury Committee to inquire into questions connected with taking of census report. Minutes of evidence, appendices]

Suggestions to Home Department by Statistical Society in relation to ensuing census, BPP 1870 LVI (350) [View this document: Suggestions to Home Department by Statistical Society in relation to ensuing census]