The arrangements for the taking of a decennial census were set out in a Parliamentary act in 1800, but there had been discussions on the necessity of taking a census for many years. At the time of the first census, in 1801, the country was at war. We had had several bad harvests and maritime conditions were unstable. Many of the agricultural workers were in the Army or at sea. The government needed to find out how many people lived in Britain, what they were doing and where they were doing it.
The first census consisted of six questions. The first 3 were to be answered by house-to-house enquiry on 10 March 1801, or as soon as possible after that date. These questions established how many dwellings, how many people and what occupations they had.
The next two questions were addressed to the local clergy asking how many baptisms, burials & marriages had taken place. These covered the period back to 1700 in the case of baptisms and burials and back to 1754 for marriages.
The final question just asked if there was anything else the respondents would like to say.
The government sent out printed forms and the whole exercise was supervised by the Overseers of the Poor or “other substantial householders”.
The results consisted of numerical totals and did not include names. However, some local returns still survive giving names. The returns were affirmed before local Justices of the Peace by a certain date. They then went up the chain to the Home Office in London. The answers given by the clergy followed a different route and ended up with the Privy Council.
In 1811, the census asked the same questions, but with knobs on. It distinguished between uninhabited & building dwellings. The question about occupation was also amended. The clergy were asked to record the numbers of baptisms, marriages and burials registered in each of the ten years since the last census.
In 1821, additional questions were asked about the ages of the people. These were grouped in five year bands up to 20 & in 10 year bands after that.
In 1831 more extensive questions about occupations were asked. There were seven categories. Agricultural, manufacturing, retail or handicraft, capitalists, mines & fishermen, retired or disabled and finally, those employed as servants.
In addition, the clergy were asked to indicate the number of illegitimate children born in 1830.
In 1841 changes were made that are, in essence, still with us today. The returns included, for the first time, the names of the respondents. The carrying out of the census was handed over to the General Registration Office and the census was organised on tbe basis of the new poor law administrative districts.
The story of the British censuse is one of gradual change. It is also a story of a struggle between those who wanted to keep it simple (Home Office, GRO etc) and those who wanted to ask as many questions as possible. These latter including various scientific and social institutions as well as government departments. This struggle continues, as could be seen in the UK press last week.