A history of 



The first Census held in the United Kingdom took place in 1801, under the superintendence of. a Mr. Rickman. It showed the number of persons (distinguishing the sexes) in the various Counties, Hundreds, and Parishes of Great Britain; the number of Houses and of the Families by which they were occupied; and a rough statement of the occupations of the people, under three classes as follows:

(1)   “ Persons chiefly employed in agriculture,”

(2)   “ Persons chiefly employed in trade, manufactures, or handicraft,” and

(3)   “All other persons not employed in the two preceding classes.”

It also included an abstract of the Pariah Registers from returns made by the Clergy, giving in each Hundred, or. Wapentake, &c., of England and Wales, the number of Baptisms and Burials at every tenth year from 1700 to 1780 and in each year afterwards, and the number of Marriages In every year since 1758.

‘The Census of 1811 was taken upon the same plan as that adopted in 1801, and the same particulars of information were given the only difference being, that in 1811 the number of Families occupied in the three above mentioned classes was shown, instead of  the number of Persons, as in 1801, and in 1811, the number of Houses buildings was shown separately from the number of other uninhabited Houses.

In 1821, information was for the first time attempted to be supplied respecting the Ages of the population, giving the numbers in five year periods up to the age 20, and thence in ten yearly periods; but as it was left optional, both to the Census Officers and to the parties themselves, how far the investigation should be pursued, the return upon this point proved, to a considerable extent, deficient and unsatisfactory. In other respects the particulars inquired into at this Census, were precisely the same as the 1811. 

The Census of 1831 embraced several additional particulars, principally in elucidation of the various calsses into which the people are divided by their different occupations. While the classification of 1811 and 1821 was still retained, a further subdivision of the classes was made, as to the male population of 20 years of age and upwards. In the printed Abstract of Returns was given, at the end of each County, a detailed list of the particular trades or handicrafts included in the 3rd of the above classes, and the number of persons employed in each. The inquiry as to the ages of the population was not repeated in 1831 beyond the distinction of males above and under 20. The area of each parish and township was given for the first time, being the result of a computation made by Mr. Rickman from maps.

At the Census of 1841 several alterations and additions were introduced. The number of Families was not given, and the statement as to occupations was not made, as before, for each Parish, nor was the previous classification adopted. The inquiry, however, embraced several particulars not before noticed, and the investigation as to those hitherto given was pursued with greater minuteness and accuracy. Thus, in each Parish was shown the number of persons who were born within the County, and of those born elsewhere; while, of the population of each Hundred, was shown how many were born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies, and in foreign parts. The ages of the population in Parishes were shown in the two divisions of “under 20,” and “20 and upwards ;“ and the ages of the entire population of the Country were shown, under Counties, Hundreds, and large Towns, in five yearly periods. The occupations of the people were exhibited under Counties and large Towns, in a very extensive and detailed classification, in which the precise employment (if any) of every individual person was stated, and the whole population was distributed according to their various pursuits. The population of Parliamentary Boroughs was supplied for the first time; the boundaries being those assigned in pursuance of the Reform Act. In other respects the information previously obtained was again given, and the Parish Register Abstract, though of minor utility since the introduction of the system of General Registration by Civil Officers, was also repeated.

At the Census of 1851 it was resolved to exhibit not merely the statistics, as before, of Parishes, and, more completely, of Parliamentary and Municipal Boroughs, but also of such other large Towns in England and Scotland as appeared sufficiently important for separate mention, and of all the Ecclesiastical Districts and new Ecclesiastical Parishes which, under the provisions of various Acts of Parliament, had, during the previous 40 years, been created in England and Wales. In addition also to the inquiry concerning the Occupation, Age, and Birthplace, of the population, it was determined to ascertain the various Relationships (such as husband, wife, son, daughter)—the Civil Condition (as married, unmarried, widower, or widow)—and the number of persons Blind, or Deaf and Dumb. Further, under the impression that the 5th section of the Act would authorize such an inquiry, the design was formed of collecting statistics as to the accommodation afforded by the various Churches and other places of public religious worship throughout the country, and the number of persons generally frequenting them; and also as to the existing Educational Establishments, and the actual number of scholars under instruction. 

It was, however, subsequently considered doubtful whether, upon a rigid construction, the Census Act rendered it compulsory upon parties to afford such information, and the inquiry was therefore pursued as a purely voluntary investigation. It was not deemed necessary to procure, as at former Censuses, any abstract of the Parish Registers for the ten preceding years; the general system of Registration of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, which had been for that period in full operation, affording more complete and trustworthy information as to changes in the aspect of the population referable to the operation of these events. As regards the publication of the results a most important change was made by the adoption of the Registrar-General’s topographical arrangement of Parishes, &c., under Registration Sub-districts, Districts, Counties, and Divisions, in substitution for the old arrangement under Hundreds and Counties proper. The population of all the Parishes was moreover given for each of the previous Censuses, a column was added showing in what Hundred, &c., each Parish was situate, and the population for each Hundred and County proper was given in separate tables. An improved and extended classification of occupations was adopted, which formed the subject of a special and elaborate report.

In 1861 the Census of England and Wales was for the first time taken separately from that of Scotland, the latter having then its own Registrar-General, to whom the taking of the Scotch Census was confided. The English Census differed in no material respect from that of 1851 as to the nature or extent of the information obtained, but no returns were asked for respecting the provision for education or religious worship throughout the country. The religious worship returns of 1851 had given rise to much controversy, and the Government in 1861 apparently shrank from reopening the subject, although urged to do so in many quarters. Other inquiries appear also to have had their advocates; and it was stated in the House of Lords that “one enthusiastic ethuographer was anxious to have returns of the number of people with different coloured hair, that some idea might be formed of the relative proportions of the Saxon and Danish races” in the population. The population of the Lientenancy Sub­divisions for Militia purposes was published for the first time in the Census Returns for 1861. The classification of occupations was further improved, and the results given in full detail; a scheme for a comprehensive Industrial Census was also propounded by Dr. Farr

Early in the year 1870, in view of the approaching Census, the Council of the Statistical Society addreesed the Secretary of State for the Home Department, submitting the following recommendations for the consideration of the Government in preparing the Census Bill to be laid before Parliament:—

1. That it is advisable that the Census of 1871 should be taken at the same time of the year as the last Census.

2.    Two collateral branches of inquiry were prosecuted in 1851 by means of the Census machinery, but not under the compulsory powers of the statute. These related to -

a) The provision existing for religious worship, and the attendance thereon;

  b) The means existing for education, and the attendance at school, and places of instruction. The Council, in 1860, were of opinion that both these collateral subjects should be inquired into at the Census of 1861, and made their recommendation accordingly in April, 1860. This recommendation was not adopted by the Government of the day. The Council having again considered this part of the inquiry, and having regard to the lapse of time since the investigation of 1861, think it expedient that the same subjects should in like manner be inquired into at the Census of 1871.

3.    They are also of opinion that the statute to be passed on the present occasion should further contain an express enactment requiring that a distinct question should be inserted in every Census schedule as to the religious persuasion of the persons included In that schedule.

4.    That the statute should also require that the person filling up the schedule should state whether every individual mentioned therein above the age of seven years can read or write.

5.    That inquiries to show the state of the house accommodation of the people on the basis adopted with so much success in the last Census of Scotland should be embodied in the next Census returns for England.

And, subsequently, the Executive Committee of the Social Science Association brought under the notice of the Government the expediency of a uniform Census for the United Kingdom; and, in addition to suggestions of a similar nature to those of the Statistical Society, offered the following:

  1. That it would be of great utility if the Government would direct the Census Commissioners for the United Kingdom, In 1871, to undertake as a subsidiary inquiry an Industrial Census.

  2. That an annual enumeration of the numbers and ages of the population is greatly needed for all the principal cities and towns in the kingdom.

The Government, however, did not apparently see its way to adopting any of the foregoing suggestions, and the English Census Bill of 1870 was almost a verbatim reprint of the Census Act of 1860. During the progress of the Bill in the House of Commons repeated discussions arose in reference to the desirability of enlarging the scope of the inquiry; a proposal to ascertain the number of imbecile or lunatic persons among the general population was acceded to and embodied in the Bill; a motion for including “religious profession” among the particulars to be obtained was lost by 77 to 96 votes; and Sir John Lubbock’s desire that the number of marriages between first cousins should form part of the information required was lost by 92 to 45 votes. On the third reading Mr. Bass moved the recommittal of the Bill, in order that the following clause might be inserted:— 

The Secretary of State shall obtain, by such ways and means, and at such day or days immediately after the day appointed for the Census as shall appear to him best adapted for the purpose, an account of the establishments, factories, works, shops, or other properties or premises occupied for, and in connection with, each branch of Industry, commerce, or manufacture, and of every farm or holding in occupation for agricultural purposes, the number of persons employed in them, whether resident or non.resident therein, with their sex and ages, distinguishing the employers from the employed, the rates of wages paid in the week preceding such enumeration to every class of labourers or artisans so employed, the agents used in the several processes of production by animals,­tools, machines, or vessels, and such other particulars as, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, may exhibit the occupation of the people and the organization of labour in England.

The Home Secretary objected to the clause, saying that “there were many matters of detail connected with the proposition which would render it impossible to carry it out,” and Mr. Bass’s motion was withdrawn.

The English Census for 1871 differs from that of 1861, so far as the information supplied by the householder’s schedule is concerned, only to the extent of showing how many people classed as being idiots or lunatics at the Census date, not merely in asylums for the special treatnent of mental disorders, but at large throughout the country. 

A Preliminary Report of the 1871 census was presented by the Registrar - General and his colleagues Dr farr and Mr J.T.Hammick to the Home Secretary on the 20th June 1871. 

To be continued..... 


Sandra and George Pritchard are the authors of original work on this site.  They give permission to copy and use this information on the following conditions.
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Revised: February 09, 2009 .