Content associated with: Parish register abstract, 1801    Page 357

Census of England and Wales, 1801

Edward Higgs

The taking of the first census in 1801 can be seen in terms of the particular conditions in the country in 1800 when the first decennial Census Act was passed. Britain was at war, and was suffering from bad harvests and food shortages. Many agricultural labourers were also in the militia and so unable to work the land. It could be argued that it was necessary to enumerate the population in order to discover how many people needed feeding, and how many were working to provide food (Glass, 96–8). In some ways the first census appears to confirm this hypothesis. Not only was a census made of the population, but they were divided into three groups: those working in agriculture; those in trade, manufactures and handicrafts; and those in other employments. A separate agricultural survey was also undertaken. These Acreage Returns, which now form the record class HO 67 at the National Archives in London, show the number of acres in each parish devoted to differing crops. It could be argued, however, that the role of economic crisis was to enable the enumeration rather than to instigate it. Since food prices were high, many of the poor would have been applying to the overseers of the poor for poor relief. Since this was granted according to the number of children in families, the overseers would be in a very good position to know the total numbers of people in their parishes.

The Census Act, 1800 (41 Geo. III c.15) was, however, 'An Act for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof', as were all decennial Census Acts until that of 1850. As well as a census of the population, data on baptisms, marriages and burials for the whole of the eighteenth century were also collected. This suggests that the reasons for taking the 1801 census should be sought in the general population controversies of the eighteenth century rather than exclusively in the particular conditions of the country in 1800. In this period, Conservative defenders of the agricultural interest and political radicals believed that the population of England was declining because of the dominance of the Whig aristocracy and the rise of the commercial classes. Luxury and political jobbery were supposed to have caused a general moral and sexual debauchment, with a consequent population decline (Glass, 11–89).

The taking the first census in 1801, and those of 1811 to 1831, is bound up with the career of John Rickman (1771-1840) (1771–1840). Rickman was the son of a clergyman, and in 1796 he wrote a paper arguing that it would be easy and useful to undertake a population census. This was shown to Charles Abbot (afterwards Lord Colchester), who hired Rickman as his secretary. He employed him in drawing up the first Census Act, which Abbot introduced into Parliament in December 1800. When Abbot became Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1801, Rickman went with him to Dublin, and became deputy keeper of the privy seal. After Abbot became Speaker of the House of Commons in February 1802, Rickman continued as his secretary and settled in London. In July 1814 Rickman was appointed second clerk assistant at the table of the House of Commons, and in 1820 clerk assistant, a position he held until his death. Rickman organised all the censuses from 1801 to 1831 (Dictionary of National Biography).

In a biography of his father written after his death, Rickman's son, William, emphasised his father’s interest in acquiring information on the mortality and life expectancy of the working classes via the censuses. He saw this in terms of his father’s desire to provide proper actuarial life tables to improve the regulation of friendly societies, and other insurance schemes (Rickman, 18). Such concerns also underlay the development of a statistical branch within the General Register Office (GRO), which was to take over the administration of the census from Rickman in 1840 (Higgs, 2004, 22–40). The link between the census and life tables may go some way to explain why the censuses undertaken by Rickman included questions on baptisms, marriages and burials as well as a population count.

The schedule of the Census Act, 1800 (41 Geo. III c. 15) carried the following questions;

1. How many inhabited houses are there in your parish, township or place; by how many families are they occupied; and how many houses therein are uninhabited?

2. How many persons (including children of whatever age) are there actually found within the limits of your parish, township, or place, at the time of taking this account, distinguishing males and females, and exclusive of men actually serving in his majesty’s regular forces or militia, and exclusive of seamen either in his majesty’s service or belonging to registered vessels?

3. What number of persons in your parish, township or place are chiefly employed in agriculture; how many in trade, manufactures, or handicraft; and how many are not occupied in any of the preceding classes?

4. What was the number of baptisms and burials in your parish, township, or place in the several years 1700, 1710, 1720, 1730, 1740, 1750, 1760, 1770, 1780, and in each subsequent year to the 31st December, 1800, distinguishing males from females?

5. What was the number of marriages in your parish, township, or place in each year, from the year 1754 inclusive to the end of the year 1800?

6. Are there any matters which you think it necessary to remark in explanation of your answers to any of the preceding questions.

The first three questions were addressed to those responsible for taking the census by house-to-house enquiries on 10 March 1801, or as soon as possible thereafter. In England and Wales this duty was placed upon the overseers of the poor or 'other substantial householders'. In Scotland the task fell to the local schoolmaster. The fourth and fifth questions were addressed to the local parish clergy, who had to provide the information from their parish registers.

All the census returns had to be made on forms that were attached to the schedule of the act (Higgs, 1989, 114). These forms merely asked for the insertion of raw numbers (Higgs, 1989, 22). In order to make the returns, some overseers drew up nominal listings of the inhabitants of their parishes from which the final returns were compiled. In some areas printers produced printed forms for this purpose. In London and elsewhere printed schedules were left for householders to fill up themselves. These unofficial documents were retained locally amongst the Poor Law records, or in the parish chest (Higgs, 1989, 24–6).

The official returns made by the overseers were to be sent to the Home Office not later than 15 May. There they were to be "digested and reduced to Order by such Officer as such Secretary of State (for the Home Department) shall appoint for the Purpose". Returns compiled from the parish registers had to be forwarded by the clergy to the bishop of the diocese, who was required to send them to his archbishop, who sent them to the Privy Council. The job of preparing the abstracts of the returns that were laid before Parliament was given to John Rickman (Higgs, 1989, 6).

In 1801 the published Reports were in three parts. The Abstract of Answers and Returns under the Act for taking the Account of the Population (1801) contained merely a copy of the questions asked, and some summary statistics of the numbers of houses, persons, and persons in occupational groups for England and Wales, and Scotland, and in the Army, Navy, merchant marine, and of convicts on hulks. An Enumeration Abstract (1801–2) gave the same data for counties, hundreds and parishes in England and Wales, and for counties and parishes in Scotland. Finally, a Parish Register Abstract (1801–2) gave the number of baptisms, burial and marriages in various time periods over the preceding 100 years for hundreds and towns in England and Wales. Very little information was supplied for Scotland because so few returns of baptisms, burial and marriages had been made in the northern kingdom.


Census of Great Britain, 1801, Abstract, presented to the House of Commons, of the answers and returns made to the Population Act of 41st Geo. III &c., BPP 1801 VI (140). [View this document: Population abstract, 1801]

Dictionary of national biography (London, 1896).

Census of Great Britain, 1801, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an Act, passed in the forty-first year of His Majesty King George III. intituled "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof". Enumeration. Part I. England and Wales. Part II. Scotland BPP 1801–02 VI (9). [View this document: Enumeration abstract, 1801]

Census of Great Britain, 1801, Abstract of the Answers and returns made pursuant to an Act, passed in the forty-first year of His Majesty King George III. intituled "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof". Parish-registers BPP 1801–02 VII (112). [View this document: Parish register abstract, 1801]

D. V. Glass, Numbering the people. The eighteenth-century population controversy and the development of census and vital statistics in Britain (London, 1973).

Edward Higgs, Making sense of the census. The manuscript returns for England and Wales, 1801–1901 (London, 1989).

W. C. Rickman, Biographical memoir of John Rickman (London, 1841).