Content associated with: Age abstract, England and Wales, 1841    Page 110

Census of England and Wales, 1841

Edward Higgs

The 1841 Census was the first of the decennial enumerations of Great Britain organised by the General Register Office (GRO). However, John Rickman (1771-1840), the clerk of the House of Commons who had organised the censuses of 1801–1831, appears to have been in charge of the early preparations for taking the census of 1841. In 1836 he had forwarded circulars to the local clergy in order to collect information from the parish registers from as far back as 1570. He had analysed the results and hoped to publish these to show population trends from the sixteenth century onwards. Rickman also drew up a draft Census Bill on the lines of those of previous censuses, and had been looking at using the boundaries and officers of the new Poor Law to gather data. Rickman appears to have been in charge of these preparations until June 1840, when he fell ill from a throat infection from which he eventually died in August of that year. It was only in the last week of June that the Home Office discussed the taking of the census with Thomas Henry Lister, the first Registrar General (Higgs, 1989, 7–8). If Rickman had not died there presumably would have been far greater continuity in 1841 with the previous censuses.

The GRO had been set up in the wake of the Marriage Act, 1836 and the Registration Act, 1836, and the Registrar General appointed as head of the national system of civil registration. Lister had a central staff in the GRO, who maintained a central register of births, marriages and deaths, mainly to protect property rights through recording lines of descent. But the GRO also developed a statistical function via the preparation of reports and summary statistics on vital events for actuarial and public health purposes (Higgs, 2004, 1–89). England was divided up into registration districts, based upon Poor Law unions, and a superintendent registrar appointed for each. These areas were further subdivided into sub-districts and part-time registrars appointed to them. These officers were responsible for the registration of births, marriages and deaths within their sub-districts, and the forwarding of these data to the GRO in London. All that was necessary to turn this into an administrative system for the census was for the registrars to divide their sub-districts into smaller enumeration districts and to appoint temporary enumerators for each. These could collect the necessary data that would be sent via the registrar and superintendent to the GRO for central analysis in the same manner as data on vital statistics. In Scotland, as in previous censuses, the sheriff substitute of each county acted as registrars, and the schoolmasters as enumerators (1841 Enumeration Abstract, 4).

Lister drew up a new bill that was the basis of the Census Act, 1840 (3 & 4 Vict. c.99). This act, envisaged the establishment of a new system for taking the census. The local gathering of information was to be the duty of temporary enumerators appointed by the local registrars. They were to gather a much wider range of data on the characteristics of the individual members of the population of their district, drawing on some of the recommendations made by the London (later Royal) Statistical Society. This was to be done on one night in the year (6 June 1841) rather than, as previously, over a longer period of time, in order to avoid the problems of double-counting as people moved from place to place (Higgs, 1989, 8–9; Office of Population Censuses and Surveys & General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, 18–20).

However, under the first Census Act of 1841 Lister envisaged that the enumerators would gather the necessary information themselves by house-to-house enquiries as in previous censuses. He was opposed to household schedules because he believed that most householders were too illiterate to fill them in properly. He only appears to have accepted the need to introduce them after a pilot held in London had shown how many enumerators would have been necessary to gather the data by door-to-door enquiries. The use of household schedules was hastily authorised by a supplementary Census Act (Census Amendment Act, 1841) (4 & 5 Vict. c.7) that was passed only some two months before the enumeration was due to take place. The clergy were also to be asked to give information from the parish registers on baptisms, marriages and burials, for the years 1831–1840, and a schedule for this purpose was added to the act (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys & General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, p.20; 1841 Parish Register Abstract).

The limited amount of time that Lister had to plan the 1841 census is reflected in the somewhat ad hoc nature of the returns upon which the published Reports were based, which have some significant differences from those of later enumerations. Lister wanted to keep the household schedule as simple as possible, and he kept the headings of information to be gathered to a minimum. These included name, age (rounded down to the nearest five if over 14 years), sex, "profession, trade, employment or of independent means', whether born in the same county (yes or no), or whether born in Scotland, Ireland or 'foreign parts" (Higgs, 1989, 120). Later censuses would seek additional information on relationship to head of household, marital status, full ages, the parish and county of birth, and details of medical disabilities. This makes it difficult to compare information in the 1841 census with much of that collected in later years.

Nor were some of the groups for which special arrangements were made in later censuses catered for in the 1841 census. The schedule designed for the crew of merchant vessels, for example, only appeared in 1851. Similarly, no instructions were given on the recording of night workers in 1841. Also, many of the detailed instructions given to enumerators and householders in later censuses were not provided. For example, although the enumerator was instructed to leave a household schedule with each householder, the latter was not told if lodgers and boarders were to be included as part of his or her 'family'.

A final difference between 1841 and the later Victorian censuses was that in 1841 the tables in the published Reports gave the population for each ancient county, and within these for the traditional administrative units: hundreds, wapentakes, sokes, liberties and parishes. This made the tables comparable with those in the earlier census reports. From 1851 onwards the main units used were the registration counties, registration districts, sub-districts, parishes and townships.

The published Reports for the 1841 census were somewhat different to those produced by Rickman. As in the pre-1841 censuses there was an Enumeration Abstract that contained a general introductory preface and information on the numbers of houses and persons as well as limited age and birthplace data by counties, hundreds, parishes, townships and chapelries. But there were separate volumes giving much more detail on ages in places in England and Scotland (1841 Age Abstract), and alphabetical listings of occupations in counties and selected areas therein (1841 Occupation Abstract, Parts I). The results of the survey of parish registers were published separately (1841 Parish Register Abstract). The division of the 1841 Census Reports into a general introduction, and then separate subject volumes, set a precedent for subsequent censuses.

REFERENCES

Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain," and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an account of the population." Enumeration Abstract. BPP 1843 XXII. [View this document: Enumeration abstract, 1841]

Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain", and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an Account of the Population". Age Abstract. Part I. England and Wales and Islands in the British Seas. BPP 1843 XXIII. [View this document: Age abstract, England and Wales, 1841]

Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain", and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an Account of the Population". Occupation abstract, 1841. Part I. England and Wales and Islands in the British Seas, BPP 1844 XXVII (587). [View this document: Occupation abstract, England and Wales, 1841]

Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain", and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an Account of the Population". Occupation abstract, 1841. Part II. Scotland, BPP 1844 XXVII (588). [View this document: Occupation abstract, Scotland, 1841]

Census of Great Britain, 1841, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to acts 3 & 4 Vic. c.99 and 4 Vic. c.7 intituled respectively "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain", and "An act to amend the acts of the last session for taking an Account of the Population". Parish register abstract. England and Wales and Islands in the British Seas, BPP 1845 XXV. [View this document: Parish register abstract, England and Wales, 1841]

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

Edward Higgs, Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837–1952 (Hatfield, 2004).

Office of Population Censuses and Surveys & General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain 1801–1966 (London, 1977).