The Censuses of Great Britain

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that in 1085 the king sent his agents to survey every shire in England, to list his holdings and calculate the dues owed to him. This was the first Census which was taken in 1086 and reported in the Domesday Book. The assessors’ opinion of the values and extent of a man’s land and other property were unalterable. Domesday is the Middle English spelling of Doomsday and was used in comparison with the unalterable decisions of the Last Judgment. The Book was first published in full in 1783 and is now available online at https://opendomesday.org/

There were several other censuses attempted such as the when the Bishops in the 16th Century were asked to count the communicants or number of families in their dioceses. However prompted by crop failures, increases in food prices, a manufacturing recession, mass unemployment and riots, Charles Abbot MP for Helston in Cornwall thought that a better knowledge of the population would help avert such crises. His plans were enacted in the Census Act of 1800 which enabled a census of the whole of the United Kingdom. The first census was taken in 1801 and has continued more or less every decade ever since.

1801 Census
Data was collected on an aggregate rather than an individual basis with only statistical summaries being provided to government. Census enumerators were usually the local Overseers of the Poor aided by constables, tithingmen and other officers of the peace. They were tasked with walking to every house or dwelling in their parish, town or place and collecting data about
1 the number of inhabited houses and the number of families inhabiting them, and the number of uninhabited houses
2 the number of people, by sex, excluding men on active military service
3 the number of people occupied in agriculture, in trade, manufacture or handicraft, or not occupied in those classes
4 adding any other remarks

The clergy were also asked to provided information about the number of baptisms over the preceding century and marriages over the preceding 47 years

The records were analysed by John Rickman, a clerk in the House of Commons with a team of assistants unbelievably in a theatre. This was the Cockpit-in-Court (also known as the Royal Cockpit) originally used for cock fighting and then as a private theatre with accommodation for members of the Royal Household. Later it was used by the Privy Council as a council chamber.

The total population for Great Britain was recorded as 10,942,646 including 1410 in Convict Prison Hulks. Th analysis gave rise to some interesting findings. There were 1.8 million houses with an average of 6 per house. 2 million people worked in agriculture and a similar number in manufacturing of all types.

1811 Census
The Act for the 1811 Census laid down ’QUESTIONS addressed to the OVERSEERS in England; and to the SCHOOLMASTERS in Scotland; Who are respectively required to take an Account of the Resident Population, by proceeding from House to House on the Twenty-seventh Day of May One thousand eight hundred and eleven, and on the Days immediately subsequent thereto, if one Day shall not be sufficient’. The questions themselves were basically the same as for the 1801 Census but with more detail required. The results were returned on a form which only required the numbers for each question so it was not technically a censusas it did not contain any information about individuals or households. However the Enumerators often kept their own records including names and household details. Unfortunately almost all these locally kept documents have been lost or destroyed which is much the same in the 1801 Census.

Overall the returns gave the population of Great Britain of 12.6 million people, an increase of 1.6 million over 1801.

1821 Census
This census was held on Monday, the 28 May 1821. It was the first to try and measure the age range of the populationby using age bands of 5 years up to 20 years old, otherwise in 10 year bands. Approximately 50% of the population was under 20 (in contrast to about 25% today). The instructions to the Enumerators were carefully and fully phrased. For example ‘are there any other Matters which you may think it necessary to remark in Explanation of your Answer to this or any of the preceding Questions;-And in what Manner and to what Place of Residence and Post Office Town are Letters intended for you usually directed’

Like the 1811 Census only numbers were recorded but as before the Enumerators kept their own records. Most of these have been lost or destroyed. However there are details surviving for Tintinhull and the THLG hopes to obtain a copy of this for the Archives. This gives details of the name of the head of the household along with numbers in that household and their ages within the ranges specified.

The returns gave the population of of Great Britain as 14.4 million people, an increase of 1.8 million over 1811. We have also the population of Tintinhull which was 388.

1831 Census
This Census was taken on Monday, 30 May 1831 with much the same format as before but on this occasion it attempted to gain more information about occupations. This was mainly restricted to males aged over 20. For example ‘How many Males upwards of Twenty Years old are Wholesale Merchants, Bankers, Capitalists, Professional Persons, Artists, Architects, Teachers, Clerks, Surveyors, and other Educated Men? And in answering this Question, you will include generally Persons maintaining themselves otherwise than by Manufacture, Trade, or bodily Labour’.

Again the Enumerators own records have mostly now been lost or destroyed. In fact the only surviving records in Somerset are for the parishes of Batcome, Brislington, Mark, Othery, Wedmore and Ston Easton of over 400 parishes that were recorded.

The returns gave the population of Great Britain as 16.54 million people, an increase of 1.9 million over 1821. There were 2.85 million inhabited buildings, occupied by 3.41 million families.

1841 Census
A new Act was passed in 1840 to expand the information collected. In England and Wales the General Register Office (set up in 1837 for the registration of births, marriages and deaths) was now conducting the Census, which previously been the responsibility of the Home Office.

The pre 1841 Censuses had been purely a head count and not intended to collect personal information. The 1841 Census changed all that. In the past unpaid enumerators had effectively been allowed as much time as they wanted to collect the details so people were often missed or counted more than once.

Each householder was supplied with a form – Householder’s Census Schedule to complete the details of everyone including visitors and servants staying at the premises on the night of Sunday, 6 June 1841. One question was ‘Where born’ with only ‘same county’ yes or no or F for foreigner providing a minimal degree of help to genealogists. Householders could be fined for non cooperation with amounts from 40 shillings (£2) to £5. Ages for adults were rounded down to the nearest 5 years.

The details collected on the forms were transferred into Census Enumerators Books which rarely included the full address. The original forms were generally destroyed.

The census showed that in Great Britain there were 18,534,332 people. The greatest number were employed as domestic servants and the least were ice dealers of whom there were only 5.

1851 Census
As for the 1841 Census, householders had to supply the details of everyone staying overnight, this time on the night of Sunday 30 March 1851. The census had much the same questions but were expanded. Ages were now no longer rounded down and occupations now included second occupations. The ‘where born’ question was to provide details of the county and parish or town of birth. If this was in another country then this was also required. A new question was the relationship to the Head of the household along with the person’s marital status. All very useful to the genealogist.

The census showed that in Great Britain the population had risen again to 20,816,351. This was the year of the Great Exhibition which attracted about 2 million visitors (and about 6 million visits). Despite this, the number of foreign visitors did not show any significant increase in the first 3 months of the year compared to the same period in 1850.

1861 Census
This was held on the night of Sunday 7 April 1861 and included those travelling or at work and were returning home the next morning. Otherwise with some minor tweaks the questions were the same as in 1851.

The Census showed that in Great Britain including British islands the population was now 23,271,965. The population of England and Wales had risen by 12% in 10 years but in Ireland (not included) they has fallen by 11.8% reflecting the terrible consequences of the potato famine.

1871 Census
Every householder had to provide details of anyone staying overnight on Sunday 2 April 1871. They also had to include those travelling or at work and were returning home the next morning. There were some small additions to the questions so that those unemployed from their usual profession had to include the nature of that profession. Another somewhat untoward question included was whether a person was ‘imbecile or idiot, or lunatic’.

The Census showed that in Great Britain including British islands the population was now 26,072,284. A census of the whole of the British Empire had also been carried out to record a total population of 234,802,593.

1881 Census
This was held on Sunday, the 3 April 1881 with the same questions as in 1871. The Census showed that in Great Britain including British islands the population was now 29,851,272 while for the whole of the British Empire it was 254,187,630.

1891 Census
This was held on Sunday, the 5 April 1891 with the same questions as in 1881 with the addition of some about employment status, the local language(s) spoken and the number of rooms if less than 5. The Census showed that Great Britain including British islands had a population of 33,176,014 while for the whole of the British Empire it was 354,975,728. The population of the Empire showed a huge jump probably due to better recording.

1901 Census
This was held on Sunday, the 31 Mar 1901. There were quite a few changes to the questions mostly to do with the employment and nationality. The term ‘idiot’ was altered to ‘feebleminded’. British servicemen overseas had mostly not been recorded in previous Censuses and it was much the same now with over 350,000 busy fighting the 2nd Boer War.

The Census showed that Great Britain including British islands had a population of 37,150,316 while for the whole of the British Empire it was 385,815,960.

1911 Census
This was held on Sunday, the 2 Apr 1911. New questions included some related to fertility such as the number of children born alive to the current marriage. There were new questions about the type of employment, birthplace and nationality. This was the era of the suffragette movement and the fertility questions caused an uproar. There were calls to boycott the Census and indeed some ensured they were unavailable on Census night by moving around from place to place or staying in hotels. Some defaced their census schedules with comments such as ‘no persons here, only women’.

The enumerators of previous censuses transferred the details from the householder’s census schedule into an enumeration book. The original census schedules were then almost entirely destroyed so that the only remaining information is from the enumeration books. For the 1911 Census each householder’s census schedule is preserved and forms the census record itself. Information for service personnel and their families abroad were now included.

Amazingly the census information was transferred to a punched card system for processing. You might say this was an early computer.

The Census showed Great Britain including British islands had a population of 40,980,311.

1915 Register
The National Registration Act 1915 provided for a register of all persons between the ages of 15 and 65, who were not members of the Armed Forces. Unfortunately virtually all the personal information was later destroyed.

1921 Census
UK census records are not available for public viewing until the expiry of 100 years to protect the privacy those who still survive. The 1921 Census has now been released but ‘Find my Past’ has been contracted to digitise the information and they control access for the next 3 years. A fee is payable for each person searched.

The Census was due to be taken on Sunday, the 24 April 1921, but industrial unrest intervened. The Miners’ Federation planned to strike in protest at a reduction in pay, and hoped to be joined by their allies among railwaymen and transport workers. So the Census was postponed until the 19 June 1921. Unfortunately this change meant that millions of amendment slips had to be printed at great cost. This was defrayed by advertising on the back by the Sunday Illustrated owned by MP Horatio Bottomley. Shortly afterwards he was sent to prison for fraud and expelled from the House of Commons. This was the only occasion advertising has ever appeared on Census documents.

More new questions were included particularly some about divorce, circumstances of orphans (unsurprisingly for a nation that had lost so many lives in the WWI there was intense interest in children), dependents under 16, school attendance and employment. Everyone over the age of 15 had to show their marital status. Note that until the 1929 Marriage Act raised the minimum age for marriage to 16, it was 14 for boys and 12 for girls.

The Census showed Great Britain including British islands has a population of 44,176,261

1931 Census
This Census was held on the night of Sunday 26 April 1931. The population of England and Wales was 39,952,377 of whom 48.62% were male. These details come from the preliminary report
published in July 1931. However other than this preliminary report there are no other records remaining. On the 19 December 1942 a mysterious fire broke out at the Office of Works store in Hayes, Middlesex. Yet this was not the result of bombing and despite good fire precautions including 6 fire watchers the fire was so intense that everything was destroyed. Northern Ireland had had a census in 1926 so was not included.

The population in Scotland was 4,842,554 making the total for Great Britain 44,794,931. The Scottish records were held in Edinburgh which means Scotland will be the only part of the UK to release historic census records in 2031. The 1931 census is also unique as it shows a population drop in Scotland for the first time since the census began.

1939 Register
In December 1938 the Government proposed a National Register in the event of war to provide some form of identity for everyone living in the UK. On Friday, 29 September 1939 only three weeks or so after the UK declared war on Germany on the 3 September 1939, everyone was required to register with over 41 million people complying. As the enumerators visited each household they issued National Identity Cards for each person recorded. The National Register was for wartime purposes and not population studies so was not technically a census.

Unlike the Censuses, the details of each individual born over 100 years ago are publicly available by default. The Register was continuously updated until 1991. Since then Find My Past has been matching details in its records of those who have since passed away to update the Register. Images of pages from the Register have all those still alive redacted from the records.

1941 Census
Due to the war no census was taken.

Later Censuses
Censuses were taken in 1951, 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001, 2011, and 2021. Details from these will not be released until 100 years has expired.

Census Information available for Tintinhull from TLHG
1086 There is a very detailed analysis of the Domesday Book records for Tintinhull by Frank Thorn available here

Note the undernoted items are Crown Copyright under the Open Government Licence.

1821 This census is expected to be available in due course
1841 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1851 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1861 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1871 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1881 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1891 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1901 Complete set of the pages from the Enumerator’s Book
1911 Complete set of each householder’s census schedules
1939 Redacted set of all pages as at 19 March 2022

There is also a detailed analysis of the census data for Tintinhull from 1851 – 1901 from a presentation  © by Steve Whitlock on the THLG website here

© Clive Barker 2022 all rights reserved