Content associated with: Enumeration abstract, 1841    Page 403

Administration of the census

Edward Higgs

The development of the administration of the census in Britain falls into several distinct stages: 1801 to 1831, 1841 to 1901, and 1911 onwards.

The taking the first census in 1801, and those of 1811 to 1831, is bound up with the career of John Rickman. Rickman (1771–1840) 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. 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).

Rickman sent the overseers of the poor in each parish in England and Wales, or 'other substantial householders', a form on which they were to indicate the number of men and women in their parishes, along with the numbers employed in various economic categories. In Scotland the task fell on the local schoolmaster. In subsequent censuses some more detailed questions were asked on ages (1821) and occupations (1831). Questions were also addressed to the local parish clergy, who had to provide information on baptisms, marriages, and burials, from their parish registers (Higgs, 1989, 5–7). All the census returns had to be made on forms that were attached to the schedule of the Census Acts (Higgs, 1989, 114–19). These forms merely asked for the insertion of raw numbers (Higgs, 1989, 22). In order to make the returns, some overseers to 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 with 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. 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, p 6).

On Rickman's death in 1840, responsibility for taking the British census passed to the General Register Office (GRO) in London. The GRO had been set up in the wake of the Registration and Marriages Acts of 1836, and the Registrar General appointed as head of the national system of civil registration in England and Wales. England and Wales were divided up into registration districts, based upon the 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 this data to the GRO in London (Higgs, 2004, 1–21). 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 and the publication of results 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, p 4).

Thomas Lister, the first Registrar General, drew up a new bill that was the basis of the first 1841 Census Act (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 period of time, so as 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 schedules to be filled out by householders 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 (4 & 5 Vict. c.7) that was passed only some two months before the enumeration was due to take place. It was the householder who filled out the household schedules, and the enumerators then copied them into their enumeration books. Both were then forwarded to London for analysis at a temporary Census Office set up by the GRO. The household schedules were used to check the enumerators' books, and then destroyed. In 1841 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 1851 census was very similar to that of 1841, although more extensive questions were asked off the householder, and there were no parish returns. There were, however, some important administrative and statistical changes to the census. In 1841 there appears to have been little attempt to enumerate the population living outside households and institutions on Census Night. In 1841only a headcount seems to have been made of those on Royal Navy vessels, or of the Merchant Marine, whilst, in theory, fishing vessels, travellers, and night workers were missed altogether. In 1851 special ship's schedules were introduced, and travellers and night workers arriving in households on the day after Census Night were now to be included (Higgs, 1989, 37–46). The administration of the British census then settled down to this general pattern, although the establishment of a General Register Office in Scotland in 1855 meant that the censuses in Scotland were organised from Edinburgh from 1861 onwards. The London GRO was merely responsible for the census in England and Wales.

In 1911 the census was expanded to ask questions on the number of children born to married couples. The 1911 fertility survey was an important development in its own right but what was just as important for the future was the consequences this had for the data processing capabilities of the GRO. Prior to this date, the clerks in the GRO's Census Office had abstracted data from the enumerators' books on large sheets of paper. In the case of occupational abstraction, the tabling sheets were large pieces of paper with occupational headings down one side and age ranges across the top. These headings were ruled across the sheet, creating a matrix of boxes into which the census clerks were to place a tick for an occurrence in the enumerators' returns of a person of the relevant age and occupation (Higgs, 1996a, 155–6). In order to analyse the fertility data, and that gathered by the other new census enquiries, the Office introduced the use of Hollerith machine tabulators. These had been developed in 1890 for the US census of that year, and were being introduced into state statistical offices across Europe. The take-up of such technology was a consequence of the increasing size and complexity of national census enumerations across the Western world as a whole in a period of increasing state engagement with social issues. Tabulation was now done directly from the household schedules, and as a result the latter were no longer copied by enumerators into enumeration books for dispatch to the Census Office as in previous years (Higgs, 1996b).


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". 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, A clearer sense of the census: the Victorian census and historical research (London, 1996a).

Edward Higgs, 'The statistical Big Bang of 1911: ideology, technological innovation and the production of medical statistics', Social History of Medicine, 9 (1996), 409–26.

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 and the General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain 1801–1966 (London: HMSO, 1977).