first official census is held in Britain

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first official census is held in Britain

The 10th of March 1801 AD

The great census ordered by William the Conqueror in 1086, the Domesday Book , took several years to produce, but it produced a marvellous snapshot of life and the economy of his new lands. Perhaps partly because that census was aimed at extracting revenue there was a resistance among the British for many centuries for further such exercises to be carried out.

Other objections were raised. Some felt that it was sacrilegious to enumerate the population, treating the works of god as ciphers. Others, in the era of the Napoleonic Wars , felt that compiling the data would inevitably see it in the hands of the enemy, allowing Bonaparte to plan the conquest of these shores as William had before him.

But by 1800 the need for a census was greater than the resistance to it. Malthus with his 1798 vision of population growth outstripping the ability of the country to feed that population was a forceful argument in favour of compiling the statistics. And the argument about the enemy benefiting from the information could be turned on its head, with plans to resist invaders depending on the availability of a clear view of the country.

Thus the Census Act of 1800 was passed on December 3 1800, receiving royal assent on December 31 of that year, the census to be carried out on Monday March 10 1801. The title of the Act is descriptive: “An Act for taking an Account of the Population
of Great Britain, and of the Increase or Diminution thereof.”

In England and Wales churchmen, overseers of the poor, or failing their availability “some other substantial householder”, was to compile a report on their parish. In Scotland schoolmasters undertook the task. Ireland was not included in the census until 1821.

The data gathered was firstly concerned with finding the population, what work the people were engaged in, and how many houses in each parish. Secondly, by means of enumerating baptisms and burials in each parish every ten years from 1700 it would find if the population was rising or in decline.

Population estimates before the census varied from 8 million to 11 million. The actual figures proved to be: 8.3 million people in England – women outnumbering men by 300,000; the Welsh population was 542,000; and Scotland 1.6 million. Thus the total was 10.4 million, at the higher end of what had been estimated.

Whilst Ireland was not included, an approximation was given in the reports based on the census, the number of households being known from the Hearth Tax collection suggesting a population there of 4 million. The Channel Islands, Isles of Scilly, and Isle of Man were likewise not included in the census, but the report states rather airily: “The total population of these islands has been usually estimated at about eighty thousand persons.”

We should spare a thought for those involved in compiling the statistics and making some sense of them, without benefit of computer technology other than the human brain. John Rickman, a statistician, was the leading light in this stage of the affair, as he had been in its origin – an article he wrote in 1796 is seen as the first push for a census, and he even drafted the 1800 Act.

Napoleon may or may not have got hold of the details, but he never did invade. And no great plague struck the nation down after the census was carried out. So we continue with the ten-yearly survey to this day, though this being the modern world the questions are far more numerous, and far more invasive of our privacy too.

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