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Parliamentary legislation, England and Wales

Matthew Woollard

Each census in Great Britain has had parliamentary approval. Up to the 1921 round of censuses in England and Wales and Scotland separate acts of Parliament were passed each decade to approve the census. The Act passed in 1920, however, allowed further censuses to be taken without further parliamentary approval, but allows the current Government to ask the monarch to make an Order in Council directing that a census be taken on a particular day. The census in 2001 was taken subject to a number of amending Acts, most notably, the Census (Confidentiality) Act of 1991 and (for England) the Census (Amendment) Act of 2000 (for Scotland) the Census (Amendment) (Scotland) Act of 2000.

The first census act was passed on the last day of 1800 (Census Act, 1800). In twelve detailed paragraphs (which happen not to mention the word census), the administrative machinery of the census was laid down. For England, the Overseers of the Poor (or some "substantial householder"), and for Scotland, persons proposed by the local government officials, were authorised to "take the account of the population". The Act laid down the tight timetable for the whole undertaking, authorised the various local officials to carry out particular tasks, printed the various allowances, and noted the fines for non-compliance. It also described the checking procedures to be used, as well as the duties of the various ministers of the Church in their obligations.

The acts changed slightly between 1801 and 1811 and 1821 and 1831. Legislation for the 1841 census was a radical departure from its predecessors – and was formulated within two Acts.

The first Act, Census Act, 1840 (3 & 4 Vict. c.99) had a markedly different title from its predecessors. The complete title was: "An Act for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain". This Act set up census Commissioners (Registrar General and others) and placed administrative control firmly in the hands of the RG. It allowed for each Registrar's District to be formed into enumeration districts; for Registrars (of Births and Deaths) to choose enumerators subject to the RG's approval; stated which information to be collected; attempted to ensure correct geography; Registrars to verify accounts; abstracts to be presented within a year. The provisions for Scotland were similar to those for England, but reliant on local government system rather than the Registrar's as the Registration Act did not extend to Scotland.

This Act was altered by the Census Amendment Act, 1841 known fully as "An Act to amend the Acts of the last Session for taking Account of the Population" (4 Vict. c.7) which was passed on the 6th April of 1841. This amending act was to have ramifications for all census-taking up to the present day. (Important to note that this act also amended the act for taking the population in Ireland.)

A third act (Census (Payment) Act, 1841) relating to the 1841 census was passed (5 Vict. c.9) laying down the regulations for payments to be made to the various officials involved in taking the census.

Each of the acts relating to the taking of the census discussed so far relate to both England and Wales, and Scotland. The act passed in 1850 covered the same geographic units, while from 1860 to 1890 the four acts were solely for England and Wales, owing to the formation of a separate General Register Office in Scotland. For the 1901 and 1911 censuses acts were again passed for all of Great Britain, while in 1921 a new act (Census Act, 1920) was passed which remains in force (with amendments) today. All of these acts can be read on this web site.

While parliamentary legislation does not make for fascinating reading, the detail of these acts often provides insights into the administrative procedures for the censuses (and registration) which can not be found elsewhere. Further research could be carried out on examining the parliamentary debates relating to the legislation going through parliament.

The series of primary legislation relating to registration is more complex than that for the censuses. All of the key legislation can be read on this web site.

Two bills were brought to Parliament by Lord John Russell in February 1836; one which became the Marriage Act, 1836 introduced both new laws for the marriage of dissenters and for the civil registration of marriages, the second, which became the Registration Act, 1836 for the registration of births, deaths and marriages. Glass (Numbering the people 127–8) recounts the opposition to these bills from the temporal lords. Many amendments to these bills were made, but were eventually passed in August 1836 guaranteeing civil registration. The registration act was imperfect, inasmuch as the onus was on the registrar chasing births and deaths. For births the parent was, within 42 days "give Information, upon being requested so to do, to the said Registrar...". The same wording was given for deaths but the period much shorter, only 8 days. That the administration was not in place in time for this great experiment to occur is shown by the passing of a further act in late February 1837 moving the commencement of registration three months forward to June 1837. A further act passed in 1837 clarified the earlier acts and tied up a number of loose ends which had clearly not been foreseen. The amendment act of 1856 (Registration (Amendment) Act, 1856) ended the necessity for notices of marriages to be read before the boards of guardians.

The main alterations caused to registration by the Registration (Amendment) Act, 1874 was to place the onus for registration of birth on the parents and for registration of deaths on relatives rather than the registrar. The main reason for these changes was because of widespread, but diminishing under-registration of births. (See Glass, 'A note'). It also altered the existing practice of recording the causes of death making registered medical practitioners responsible for issuing death certificates.


M. J. Cullen, 'The making of the civil registration act of 1836', Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 25 (1974), 39–59.

M. Drake, 'The census, 1801–1891', in E. A. Wrigley, ed., Nineteenth-century society (Cambridge, 1972), 7–46.

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

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

D. V. Glass, 'A note on the under-registration of births in Britain in the nineteenth-century', Population Studies, 5 (1951–2), 70–88.