Content associated with: Enumeration abstract, 1841    Page 401


Edward Higgs

The British censuses of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did not ask directly for information on migration. No questions relating to any aspects of migration were asked by John Rickman, the clerk of the House of Commons, responsible for the early censuses of the period 1801 to 1831. From 1841, when the General Register Office (GRO) took over the organisation of the census, householders were asked for information about the birthplaces of the members of their households but this was not completely accurate, and did not always show migration clearly.

The quality of the birthplace data in the 1841 census was not very satisfactory. The household schedule contained two columns headed 'Whether born in the same county', and 'Whether born in Scotland, Ireland, or Foreign Parts'. Householders were instructed to write 'yes' or 'no' in the first column, and 'Scotland', 'Ireland' or 'Foreigner' in the second. 'Foreigner' only referred to those born outside the UK who were not British subjects. Those born abroad who were British subjects were to be entered in the first column with the word 'no'. The enumerators abbreviated these entries when copying them into their enumeration books, using 'Y', 'N', 'S', 'I' and 'F' respectively (Higgs, 1989, 71).

From the census of 1851 more informative answers were required. In England and Wales in 1851, householders were to indicate first the county, and then the town or parish of birth of those born in England. This arrangement was to be followed in all subsequent Victorian censuses. For those born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies, the East Indies or Foreign Parts, the country of birth was to be given. The term 'British Subject' was to be added to the latter if appropriate. Wales was not mentioned in the instructions until 1891, when it was treated in the same manner as England. Some other minor changes were introduced in the course of the century. In 1861 a distinction was to be made between 'British Subject' and 'Naturalised British Subject'. In 1871 those born in Scotland, Ireland, the British Colonies or the East Indies were to state the country or colony of birth; and those born in Foreign Parts the particular state or country. The 1901 census broke the population down into four groups instructing householders to:

State the Birthplace of each person:

1. If in England and Wales, the County and Town, or Parish.

2. If in Scotland or Ireland, the name of the County.

3. If in a British Colony or Dependency, the name of the Colony or Dependency.

4. If in a Foreign Country, the name of the Country, and whether the person be a 'British Subject', a 'Naturalised British Subject', or a 'Foreign Subject' specifying nationality such as 'French', 'German', &c. (Higgs, 1989, 71–2).

The increasingly detailed returns relating to those born abroad may reflect the growing animosity towards Jewish immigrants that led to the restrictions placed on immigration in the 1905 Aliens Act (Gainer, 1972).

In 1911 the birthplace column was split in two — one for birthplace and one for 'Nationality of every person born in a foreign country'. All those born in the United Kingdom were now to indicate their county, town or parish of birth, and one could now say if one was born at sea. Those born in the British Empire were to indicate the name of the colony, dependency, 'and of the province or state'. As before those born in a foreign country were to state the name of the country. Under nationality people born in foreign countries were to indicate if they were 'British subject by parentage', 'Naturalised British subjects' (giving year of naturalisation), or indicate if they were French, German, Russian, and so on (Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report, 258). The increasing specificity here might have been due to a desire to collect more information on foreign nationals in the lead up to the Great War, when the returns may have been used to build up an index of enemy aliens (Higgs, 2004, 110).

After the War the birthplace questions became less detailed. In 1921 those born in the UK were to give the name of the county, town or parish, as in 1911. But those born in the Empire and elsewhere were now lumped together as those 'born outside the United Kingdom', and had to state the country, state, province, or district. Under nationality those not born in the UK, whether residents or visitors, were merely to state if they were 'British born', 'Naturalised British', 'French', 'German' and so on. (Census of England and Wales, 1921, General report, 203). Similar instructions were given in 1931.

This birthplace material was supplemented in 1921 by a question on place of work (a statement as to address of employer, or 'no fixed place', or 'at home'), which focussed on daily population movements. This was partly to enable an analysis of the transport problems caused by the movement of people from the suburbs to their places of employment, and to get a better idea of housing needs. Both the Ministry of Transport and the Housing Board had pressed for this information (TNA RG 19/52, 73). The GRO was also conscious that the dissociation between where people were active during the day and slept at night created problems for the traditional understanding of the effect of place on people's lives. For example, if people worked in one place but lived in another, how would it be possible to examine the environmental causes of mortality in a particular location (Census of England and Wales, 1921, General report, 190, 202–3)?

One may have doubts as to the extent to which householders understood the instructions with regard to those born outside the UK but those relating to people born in England, Scotland and Ireland appear fairly straightforward. There are, however, some problems with the data. Examinations of successive censuses have revealed discrepancies in people's birthplaces between enumerations. Many of these discrepancies are minor and easily explained by clerical error or the ignorance of householders. There was also a tendency to record the place of residence, or the earliest one that could be remembered, as the place of birth. In institutions such as workhouses there appears to have been a propensity on the part of some returning officers to give the location of the institution as the place of birth. There may also be a tendency for recent migrants to change their place of birth to their place of residence, which may have had something to do with the workings of the Poor Law. This may tend to reduce the overall level of migration shown in the census, and should be borne in mind by historians when discussing population movements in this period (Higgs, 1989, 72–4).

As already noted, the exact status of those born abroad can be difficult to determine. It was generally believed in the GRO that people did not understand the instructions relating to naturalisation. The number of foreigners by both birth and nationality may thus be inflated by the omission of 'British Subject' or 'Naturalised British Subject'. On the other hand, it was suggested that some foreigners, especially refugees, may have falsified their returns by claiming British birth or nationality in order to avoid further persecution. Enumerators may have been totally mystified by the accents of foreign immigrants, or by foreign administrative nomenclature (Higgs, 2005, 91–2).

It should also be remembered that the birthplace data in the censuses can only give an indication of completed migration. The census returns show where someone was at the time of their birth, and on a particular Census Night, but not what happened in between. Thus, a person residing in their place of birth at a census may have travelled half way round the world and back. Some indication of such 'hidden' migration can sometimes be glimpsed from the birthplaces of the children of such migrants but, of course, this does not show up in the published census tables (Higgs, 2005, 147).

The data relating to birthplaces can be found scattered throughout the published Census Reports. For a detailed list of such tables see the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, and General Register Office, Edinburgh's Guide to Census Reports, 160–71). There are some tables in the 1841 Enumeration Abstract (Abstract return... 1841) — at the end of each county section is a table giving the birthplace data for each hundred, and 'principal place'. But of course these only give data on numbers born in the county, out of the county, in Scotland, Ireland and Foreign Parts, because that was all the information that was collected in 1841. In the period 1851 to 1901 much of the data on birthplaces was covered in distinct volumes covering ages, marital condition, occupations, birthplaces and infirmities. These give the counties and countries of birth for various registration districts. In 1911 there was a single volume on birthplaces in England and Wales (Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. IX. Birthplaces) but in later years the birthplace data was found mainly in the General Reports. In 1921 there were also two volumes given over to an analysis of workplaces (Census of England and Wales, 1921, County of London. Tables Part. III. Supplementary. Workplaces in London and Five Home Counties; Census of England and Wales, 1921, Workplaces).

William Farr, the GRO's redoubtable superintendent of statistics in the mid-Victorian period, claimed that the published returns showed no definitive laws of migration. This spurred Ernest George Ravenstein to analyse the census birthplace data for 1871 and 1881, and to publish a seminal article in 1885 in which he used the census tables to promulgate seven 'laws of migration' These were: 1) Most migrants only proceed a short distance, and toward centres of absorption; 2) As migrants move toward absorption centres, they leave 'gaps' that are filled up by migrants from more remote districts, creating migration flows that reach to "the most remote corner of the kingdom"; 3) The process of dispersion is inverse to that of absorption; 4) Each main current of migration produces a compensating counter-current; 5) Migrants proceeding long distances generally go by preference to one of the great centres of commerce or industry; 6) The natives of towns are less migratory than those of the rural parts of the country; 7) Females are more migratory than males (Ravenstein, 1885).

These laws have been of great importance to the development of migration studies. The published census birthplace data have continued to be the basis of much modern scholarship in the field (e.g. Baines, 1985).


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]

Dudley Baines, Migration in a mature economy : emigration and internal migration in England and Wales, 1861–1900 (Cambridge, 1985).

Census of England and Wales, 1911, General report with appendices BPP 1917–18 XXXV. [View this document: General report, England and Wales, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1911, Vol. IX. Birthplaces (and ages and occupations of foreigners), BPP 1913 LXXVIII. [View this document: Birthplaces, England and Wales, Vol. IX, 1911]

Census of England and Wales, 1921, County of London. Tables Part. III. Supplementary. Workplaces in London and five home counties (London: HMSO, 1923). [View this document: County of London. Part III., 1921]

Census of England and Wales, 1921. General report with appendices (London: HMSO, 1927). [View this document: General report, England and Wales, 1921]

Census of England and Wales, 1921, Workplaces (London: HMSO, 1925). [View this document: Workplaces, England and Wales, 1921]

Bernard Gainer, The alien invasion: the origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London, 1972).

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

Edward Higgs, The information state in England: the central collection of information on citizens, 1500–2000 (London, 2004).

Edward Higgs, Making sense of the census revisited. Census records for England and Wales, 1801–1901 — a Handbook for Historical Researchers (London, 2005).

TNA RG 19/51. Census Joint Committee: notes on proceedings; correspondence.

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

Ernest George Ravenstein, 'The Laws of Migration', Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 48 (1885), 167–235.