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Introduction to administrative units of England and Wales

Edward Higgs

Before the 1830s the administrative units of England and Wales comprised the ancient counties, broken down into hundreds or, in some northern and eastern counties, into wapentakes. These were further divided into parishes, either ecclesiastical or purely administrative. The latter were the basic units for local administration in the countryside, having their own overseers of the poor and highways. There were anomalies to this pattern, with some 'extra-parochial places' and 'liberties' falling outside any parish. Some urban areas were designated ancient boroughs with their own administrative systems but for others there was no single administrative entity. This was especially true of many of the northern industrial cities. This administrative structure was the basis of the censuses of 1801 to 1831 undertaken by John Rickman. He sent census schedules to overseers of the poor, clergymen, and schoolmasters in Scotland, and asked them to place the numbers of people in their parishes in various categories (Higgs, 1989, 5–7, 114–19).

The 1830s saw the beginning of important changes to this administrative system. The 1832 Reform Act took away the right to parliamentary representation from some boroughs, extended the parliamentary limits of others, and created new boroughs with parliamentary status. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 officially established boroughs with municipal powers, either by inclusion in the schedule to the Act or by later charter. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act vested the management of poor relief in boards of guardians whose sphere of responsibility extended to all the parishes that were amalgamated into their unions. Such unions were formed for local administrative convenience, and many were partly in two or more ancient counties. When civil registration was established in England and Wales by the 1836 Births and Deaths Registration, and Marriages, Acts, the Poor Law unions were generally adopted as registration districts. Superintendent registrars of births, deaths and marriages were appointed for each. The registration districts were sub-divided into sub-districts, and amalgamated into larger registration counties and divisions. The registration counties were not, therefore, identical to the ancient counties. The censuses from 1841 onwards were organised by the General Register Office (GRO), which was responsible for administering this system, and it used the registration system and its units, as the basis of the census-taking apparatus. In the Census Reports for 1841, however, care was taken to give the results in terms of the ancient administrative units, rather than the new registration units (Abstract of the answers and returns … 1841, 5).

In the course of the late nineteenth century further administrative changes were introduced. The Public Health Acts of 1874 and 1875 created new authorities with responsibilities for sanitation and public health. Urban areas, already included in municipal boroughs or other bodies such as towns with improvement commissioners, were to form urban sanitary districts, the number of which was enlarged in subsequent years. The rest of the country was divided into rural sanitary districts that were co-terminus with Poor Law unions less the areas in urban sanitary districts. The system was abolished by the 1894 Local Government Act, which transformed urban and rural sanitary districts into general-purpose urban districts and rural districts within the framework of administrative counties.

These changes created considerable problems for the GRO, in that in the Census Reports it now had to report on the populations of three different sets of administrative units — the ancient, pre-1832 units; the registration units; and the new urban districts and rural districts. The boundaries of the new areas were also continually changing, causing endless problems of comparability between censuses. The census-taking process had to collect information on all these administrative entities (Higgs, 2004, 109–13). Reporting on the ancient districts in the Census Reports was dropped by 1911 but the information on the population of the other sets of units continued down to 1931 (Lawton, 294–5).

These arrangements caused considerable problems with the mortality data published by the GRO in its Annual Report of the Registrar General (ARRG). These were collected on the basis of registration districts and reported in the ARRG for the same units, but the main group that used the data were the medical officers of health of sanitary districts, who wanted the data arranged under the latter. A start on overcoming these problems was made in 1913, when the ARRG for 1911 published mortality data by sanitary districts (Seventy-fourth Annual Report of the Registrar General (1911), viii). This change had been made possible by the introduction of Hollerith machine tabulators, originally for the analysis of the 1911 census data, which greatly increased the data processing powers of the GRO (Higgs, 2004, 170–5).

For a useful listing of the geographical areas used in the reporting of various heads of information in the Census Reports see the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the General Register Office's, Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain 1801–1966 (1977). For a gazetteer of geographical and administrative areas used in the censuses see Appendix 4 of Edward Higgs's Making sense of the census, 127–32).


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". Age Abstract. Part I. England and Wales and Islands in the British Seas. BPP 1843 XXIII. [View this document: Age abstract, England and Wales, 1841]

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).

Richard Lawton, ed., The census and social structure: an interpretative guide to nineteenth century censuses for England and Wales (London, 1978).

Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain 1801–1966 (London, 1977).

Seventy-fourth Annual Report of the Registrar General (1911), BPP 1912–13, XIII (Cd.6578).[View this document: Seventy-fourth annual report of the registrar-general ]