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Counting the United Kingdom: The census from 1086 to now


Every ten years since 1801 details of people living in the United Kingdom are collected by the government in order to gather demographic information, calculate resource allocation and monitor changes in the nation’s population. At first the census was merely a headcount, with almost no personal information, such as names and ages, recorded. Names of individuals and their occupations were first recorded in 1841, making the national census a wealth of information for sociologist, genealogists and family historians alike.

The Domesday Book(s)

Census taking goes back to ancient times, with both the Romans and the kingdom of Dál Riata recording tax assessments. However, England’s first formal census (and now its oldest public record) was made in 1086 on the orders of William I, as he wanted to know who lived where and who owned what – and if property had changed hands since Edward the Confessor’s reign. Scribes listed more than 13,000 places in England and parts of Wales in the survey which still holds legal value to this day. William I used this information to calculate taxes owed and available military resources. The Domesday Book is in fact two books, Little Domesday and Great Domesday. Remarkably, Great Domesday was almost entirely written by one scribe, with another checking and making annotations. The two books were re-bound into five volumes in 1985 to help with their preservation.

The first national census

In 1798 statistician John Rickman wrote an article outlining the usefulness in conducting a census. He presented twelve reasons, stating “the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy” and “an industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known.” One worry was that food supplies would not be able to keep up with the nation’s apparently growing population. Another major reason to conduct the census was to find out how many men were available to defend the seas and fight in the Napoleonic Wars. In 1800 the Census Act was passed in Parliament and in 1801 the first ever detailed, national survey was carried out in two parts from 10 March 1801. Schoolmasters and local ‘Overseers of the Poor’ went from house to house gathering information on household numbers, occupations, baptisms, marriages and burials. These enumerators then fed their findings (usually only as a summary) to be published on 21 December 1801. The census revealed a population of almost 10 million.

Wartime census taking

There is a gap in the census records as the 1931 England and Wales census was burned in an accidental fire in 1939 and the 1941 census was called off because of World War II. However, similar information was recorded in September 1939 for the National Registration Act, which was undertaken as an emergency measure at the start of the war. Forty million people were recorded and this information was used to distribute identity cards and ration books and to check on military movements and mass evacuations. After the war citizens were required to notify the registration authorities if their name or address changed up until 1952. The records were used to create the NHS Central Register in 1948 and updated on paper until 1991. The NHS archive still holds the original 65,000 register books.

Modern questions

The 1951 census encouraged women to be honest about their age and was also the first to ask about ‘household facilities’ (outdoor toilets) as the country was eager to rebuild housing after the war. In 1961 a computer was used for the first time to process results, and it took five and a half years to do so. Also in 1961 a new method was trialled where all households received a short census form (with address, name, age, etc. as usual) and a sample population of one in ten households also filled in a long form. The 1971 census asked for the year a person entered the country but this was dropped in 1981. Results from the 1991 census saw 90% of the population living in urban areas and a decrease in household size from 4.6 in 1901 to 2.4 persons. Recording the census allows for changes in the country’s demographics and population over time to be accurately surveyed and informs the country on how to best plan for the coming decades.

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