This year marks the two hundredth anniversary
of the first census held in England. Many
countries took censuses before Britain. Quebec
completed one as early as 1666; Iceland in 1703,
Sweden in 1749 and Germany soon followed. In the
United States census taking was delayed until 179o
because of religious opposition. People feared
that a census might incur the wrath of God
because a census of the Israelites ordered by
King David was followed by a plague that killed
This view was used as an argument against
census taking in Britain when a Bill was
introduced into the House of Commons in 1753. The
people of Newcastle-upon-Tyne 'looked upon the
proposal as ominous and feared .... an epidemical
distemper should follow the numbering', according
to Matthew Ridley, their MP. When a second Bill
came before Parliament in 1Soo there was
widespread concern that the growing population
might be outstripping the country's ability to
grow sufficient food. The debate was fuelled by
Thomas Malthus's 'Essay on the Principle of
Population' published in 1798 and bad harvests in
1800 ensured that the Bill was passed. The census
was held on March lo, 1801.
Many early returns or lists of populations do
survive. For example the parish of Binfield has
returns before the national census began and the
official census for 1801 includes all the names
of those living in the parish with family
relationships, although not birthplace. For most
of the country the censuses from 180l to 1831
merely recorded the number of people in each
parish, the number of houses, some information on
occupations and other statistics.
It was only in 1841 that a force of
enumerators was employed specifically to take the
census. Before then 'overseers of the poor' and
other leading members of the parish took the
census. The 1841 census was also the first one to
use self-completed forms. 35,000 male enumerators
- who were supplied with pencils recorded almost
16 million people in this census. Women census
takers first took up posts in 1891. The
requirements for a good census taker have not
changed much in over 150 years: 'he must not be
infirm; he must be temperate, orderly and
respectable, and such a person has to conduct
himself with strict propriety'. In many cases the
lady of the house must have taken responsibility
for the census form. There are some colourful
examples of women taking advantage of their
position as census form fillers. In 1881, one
women gave her title as 'Maid of Allwork', her
occupation as 'slave' and a handicap as 'scarcity
of money'. In 1851 newspapers reported that a
Portsmouth women gave her occupation as
'mangleworker' and listed the occupation of her
husband as 'turns my mangle'.
SCENE AT A RAILWAY STATION.
(Sunday Evening, April 3, 1881.)
PEOPLE OP A CERTAIN AGE, WHO
HAVE RESOLVED TO ESCAPE THE CENSUS PAPER BY
SPENDING THE NIGHT IN TRAVELLING.
Enumerators were often extraordinarily
diligent. There is even an instance of a zealous
enumerator recording people sitting on a train in
a station. There was no escape. And enumerators
also liked to comment on what they found. One in
Preston was shocked by the poverty of a
neighbourhood in his patch and was at pains to
point out one particular aspect of privation he
found there: 'namely the serious insufficiency of
conveniences for the easement of nature'. The
Registrars General in the 1800s also commented
enthusiastically on the social affairs of the day.
In 1851, for example, the Registrar General,
George Graham, justified a decision to count
women engaged in domestic duties as part of the
working population and not as inactive. He said:
'It requires no argument to prove that the wife,
mother, mistress of the English family discharges
duties of no ordinaray importance'.
'It is a fact worth notice....' declared The
Times in 1851, 'that generally among the
labouring classes it was by the care of the women
that the required information was secured' in the
census. Enumerators were not always welcome, one
in Yorkshire noted: some very nice language was
indulged in at my expense. In asking some
questions I run the risk of being kicked out'.
The early censuses asked if people were
'lunatics' and 'imbeciles' or 'idiots'. In 1881
the Registrar General commented: 'It is against
human nature to expect a mother to admit her
young child to be an idiot, however much she may
fear this to be true. To acknowledge the fact is
to abandon all hope'. Enquiries into infirmities
ceased after 1911.
Dave Annal works at the Family Records Centre
and in his spare time he tracks down the famous,
and infamous, recorded in the nineteenth century
census returns. He knows where to find all the
big names: Winston Churchill, Florence
Nightingale, W.G. Grace, Karl Marx, Edward Elgar,
and Charles Darwin. 'The strange thing about
Queen Victoria', says Dave, 'is that in 1851 her
occupation is recorded as The Queen and she is
the Sovereign of much of the world, but for all
that she doesn't rule her own household as far as
the census is concerned. Albeit, her husband, who
takes the title head of household at Buckingham
Palace, runs that little corner of England. Ten
years later, the Queen relegated Albert and he
was described as husband'.
Many other women who are household names today
were also sidelined in the census forms. George
Eliot (her real name was Marian Evans) is
recorded simply as the wife of her 'partner'
George Henry Lewes in 1861 and 1871 (although she
never actually married him).
There really was a Coronation Street in
Manchester in 1861 and a Rovers Return in 1881.
There was also a Mrs. E. Sharples living on the
Street, at No. 2, and she is listed as widowed.
As for Eastenders there was an Albert Square.
Occupations of those living on the Square are
given as brothel-keepers, sailors, pimps and
prostitutes - there's even Victoria Lodge. Soaps
indeed are true to life.