Today in statistical history: Britain’s first census taken, 1801

During the 18th century, more and more families in Britain came to earn a living from industrial work rather than from agricultural work. And this trend continued in the 19th century, although work providing services rather than in making goods rose to prominence. At the same time, the country’s population increased more rapidly than ever before, a marked upturn in the rate of growth occurring from the late 1700s. As a result, a far greater number of people were involved in making manufactured goods in early Victorian times than had been the case in early Georgian times.

The rapidity of population growth from the late 18th century caused a great deal of interest at the time and brought no little anxiety. The influential clergyman Thomas Malthus predicted that, unless checked, such rapid population growth would outstrip food supplies, leading to starvation. In the event this did not happen, but concern about population growth led to the first national census of Britain’s population taking place in 1801.

The 1801 census, taken on 10 March, had a very different format from that of more modern censuses. Information was collected on a parish basis and there were no details on households. Forms for recording the information were distributed to each parish where the overseers of the poor, ‘substantial landholders’ and local clergy all had a responsibility to collect specific types of data. Once the statistics had been collected, they were sworn before the local Justice of the Peace and eventually sent to the Home Office. The results were then collated and laid before Parliament.

The 1801 census asked local officials to provide information on the number of inhabited and uninhabited houses in the parish and how many families occupied them; the number of people in the parish and their employment; and numbers of baptisms, burials and marriages. A similar format was followed for the censuses of 1811, 1821 and 1831, with the addition of further questions. In 1811, the enumerators were asked to give more information about the reasons houses were unoccupied, so that the prosperity of the district could be more accurately gauged. In 1821 a question relating to age was asked, in order to assess numbers of men able to bear arms, and to improve the tables on which life assurance was based. More detailed questions on occupations from 1831 provided the government with economic information.

Although it has often been claimed that the first census in 1801 was taken to show how many people could take up arms during the wars against revolutionary France, the early returns up to 1831 were not very suitable for such a purpose, since they usually failed to include questions about age. All that local officials were usually asked was the numbers of men and women in the parish, and whether they fell into broad economic sectors. However, an attempt was made by John Rickman, the clerk of the House of Commons responsible for these early censuses, to give information about the armed forces. A summary table in the 1801 Enumeration Abstract gave the total number in the Army, including the militia, and in the Royal Navy, including marines (Enumeration Abstract, 1801, Summary of Enumeration). But where these figures came from, and whether they related to members of the armed forces outside Great Britain, was not clearly stated. The population tables in 1811 note when the militia were present in an area, and their numbers. Similarly, in the 1821 Abstract of the answers and returns there was a summary table giving the total numbers in the Army and Navy (including the regular army, artillery, and regular militia) in 1801, 1811, and 1831. This was said to have been compiled from “official documents”, presumably supplied by the War Office and Admiralty (Abstract of the answers and returns, viii). In 1831 there was another summary table that gave the number of men in the ‘Army, Navy, Marines and Seamen in registered vessels, again taken from ‘official documents’. These included the ‘staff (officers?) of militia regiments’, but the militia under training were added to the males of their respective counties.

So there’s no doubt that the Census was useful to the state in its war against Napoleon, as well as more long term in the construction of a modern state.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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