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Pre 1801-population estimates

Edward Higgs

Prior to the taking of the first British census in 1801, there do not appear to have been any very accurate figures for the country's population. Domesday Book in the reign of William the Conqueror gave some figures for the population of manors from which overall totals could be calculated. But Domesday Book was essentially a survey of land, and the resources, human and otherwise, attached to it. Its coverage of human beings was patchy, and difficult to interpret. Medieval poll tax and manorial records could be used to calculate overall population on the basis of various assumptions but research was not done along these lines until modern times (Hinde, 13–75).

Calculations as to the population of the country began to be made in the late seventeenth century by the early pioneers of political arithmetic but they showed great discrepancies. Based on the bills of mortality, Sir William Petty reckoned that the population of London in 1686 was about 670,000. Since he claimed that 'London is about an eleventh part of the whole territory', he estimated the population of England as about 7,369,000. But his contemporary, Gregory King, who used the bills of mortality, and claimed to have had access to official taxation returns, calculated a population of 'about 5,500,000 souls' (Thirsk and Cooper, 761–74). The latter figure is not too distant from modern estimates of population at that date made by Wrigley and Schofield (Wrigley and Schofield, 574–5), although there is controversy over what data King based his figures on, and his reliability (Higgs, 56–8).

In eighteenth-century England a debate developed over whether or not the population 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, p 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 1756 the Reverend William Brakenbridge claimed that window tax returns showed that in 1710 there were 911,310 houses, and, on the basis of a multiplier of six persons to a house, that the population was 5,467,860. In another paper he thought that recent returns showed a decline in the number of houses, and that the population was now 5,340,000. However, in the next year the Reverend Richard Forster reworked the window tax data, and claimed that the total number of houses was 1,427,110. He argued that the population was 7,509,608, based on a multiplier of five per house. In 1769 the Reverend Richard Price claimed that the population was falling, based on a figure of 1,319, 215 houses given by Charles Davenant for 1690, and of 986,482 in 1759 and 980,692 in 1766 from the Considerations of the Trade and Finances of this Kingdom. In 1772 he claimed that the population had declined from 6 million to about 4,500,000. But another clergyman, John Howlett, calculated from the window tax returns that there were over 1.6 million houses in England in 1780, and, using a multiplier based on local surveys, that the population would be about 8.69 millions. In a work published in 1798, Henry Beeke argued that the population of England and Wales was at least 11 million, and that of Scotland 2.5 million. In 1800 Sir Frederick Morton Eden combined figures for baptisms, burials and marriages, and data on assessed houses, to reach a similar figure for England and Wales (Glass, 47–89).

All the Census Acts from 1801 to 1831 had titles which indicated that they were to measure the 'increase or diminution' of the population, plainly referring to the population controversy of the previous century. In 1801, the first census showed that the population of England (excluding the military) was 8,331,434, that of Wales 541,546, and that of Scotland 1,599,068. This seemed to be equidistant between the 'optimistic' and 'pessimistic' estimates of the previous century (Enumeration Abstract, 1801, 3). When the 1811 census showed the population of England, Wales and Scotland rising to 9,499,400, 607,380, and 1,804,864 respectively, this appeared to settle the population debate in favour of the 'optimists' (Comparative statement of population, 3). This led William Cobbett to declare that men who believed the results of the censuses must have been 'brutified' by the prevailing corrupt political system, and that, 'A man that can suck that [population growth] in will believe, literally believe, that the moon is made of green cheese' (Cobbett, 1983, 81).


William Cobbett, Rural Rides (Harmondsworth, 1983).

Comparative statement of population of population of counties of GB, 1801 and 1811, BPP 1812 X.171.

Census of Great Britain, 1801, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an Act, passed in the forty-first year of His Majesty King George III. intituled "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof". Enumeration. Part I. England and Wales. Part II. Scotland BPP 1801–02 VI (9). [View this document: Enumeration abstract, 1801]

D. V. Glass, Numbering the people: the eighteenth century population controversy and the development of census and vital statistics in Britain (London, 1978).

Andrew Hinde, England's population. A history since the Domesday survey (London, 2003).

Edward Higgs, The Information State in England: the central collection of information on citizens, 1500–2000 (London, 2004).

Joan Thirsk and J. P. Cooper, eds, Seventeenth-century economic documents (Oxford, 1972).

E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The population history of England 1541–1871 (London, 1981).