Content associated with: Census of England and Wales, 1801   

John Rickman (1771–1840)

Edward Higgs

The history of the early British censuses, from their inception in 1801 to 1841, are intimately bound up with the life and interests of John Rickman. However, unlike the men who organised the censuses in the Victorian period, Rickman's position as chief census administrator was a personal, rather than institutional, one.

Rickman was born in August 1771, the son of a clergyman, and was educated at Guildford Grammar School and Oxford. He edited the Commercial, Agricultural, and Manufacturer's Magazine until 1801. In 1796 he wrote a private paper suggesting that a census would offer government an invaluable aid to effective military recruitment in the war with France, and by confirming growing population and national prosperity would promote internal stability. This can be placed in the context of eighteenth-century controversies over the 'state of England' under the Whig ascendancy (Glass, 11–89). He also argued that one could derive population estimates from parish registers, thus facilitating the 'back projection' of demographic trends. This manuscript was shown to Charles Abbot (the future Lord Colchester) by George Rose, MP for Christchurch. Abbot hired Rickman as his secretary, and employed him in preparing the first Census Act, which Abbot introduced into Parliament in December 1800 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

The administrative system established by the 1800 Census Act (41 Geo. III c.15) was to be the basis of census taking for the next 30 years. Rickman sent the overseers of the poor in each parish in England, and the local schoolmaster in Scotland, a census schedule. This asked them to fill in the numbers of houses and persons in their parish, and the numbers in three occupational categories, and return the schedule to Rickman in London. He also asked the local clergy of the established church to send details of the baptisms, marriages and burials in their parishes over the previous century. These formed the basis of a series of Parliamentary Papers written by Rickman commenting on the results of his surveys (Enumeration Abstract, 1801; Parish register abstract, 1801). In subsequent censuses, additional questions were asked, on ages in 1821, and on more detailed occupations in 1831. The continued collection of vital data from the parish registers, and the fact that all the Census Acts until that of 1850 were for, "taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof", suggest that Rickman saw his activities in terms of the paper he wrote in 1796 (Higgs, 1989, 4–7). 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, p 18).

Rickman appears to have been fully involved in the early preparations for taking the 1841 census. In 1836 he had asked the local clergy to gather information from the parish registers as far back as 1570. He had abstracted these and hoped to publish the results in order to show population trends from the sixteenth century onwards. He was also responsible for drawing up a draft Census Bill on the lines of previous censuses, and had been examining the possibility of using the boundaries and officers of the new Poor Law to gather information. Rickman appears to have been in charge of these preparations until early June 1840, when he fell ill from an ulcerated larynx from which he eventually died on 11 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 and head of the General Register Office. If Rickman had not fallen ill there would, presumably, have been far greater continuity in 1841 with the pre-Victorian enumerations (Higgs, 1989, 9).

It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that Rickman was fully engaged in the collection and analysis of population statistics. When Charles Abbot became speaker of the House of Commons in 1802, Rickman became the speaker's secretary. In 1803 he agreed to supervise the Abstract of the Poor, a survey of the incidence of poverty and expenditure under the Poor Laws. He became the secretary to the Commission on the Caledonian Canal and Highland Roads, and between 1815 and 1831 was secretary to the Commission for Building Churches in the Highlands and Ireland. In 1820 he became a clerk assistant to the House of Commons, and was an active servant of Parliament, producing an index of the statutes in 1818, its Journals in 1825, and a catalogue of the Commons Library in 1829. From 1817 he produced annual Poor Law returns, and between 1816 and 1819 he collated the statistics of local taxation. This culminated in the production of the Local Taxation Return of 1839 (Oxford dictionary of national biography).

When responsibility for the census passed to the General Register Office in 1840 there was considerable continuity in intellectual outlook and purpose. At first it was Rickman's actuarial and demographic interests that dominated the new department, although more medical concerns soon came to predominate (Higgs, 2004, 29–44). What was different, however, was that census-taking was now the responsibility of an institution which was able to organise a much larger, and more complex, survey, and to invest greater time and effort in developing means to analyse the data collected.


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]

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).

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

Oxford dictionary of national biography.

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]

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