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Thomas Wrigley Grimshaw (1839–1900)

Edward Higgs

Thomas Wrigley Grimshaw was appointed Registrar General for Ireland in Autumn 1879. He succeeded Dr. William Malachi Burke, who had died of an attack of pneumonia on August 13 of that year. Grimshaw was Registrar General for 20 years, and died 'in harness';, on 23 January 1900, aged 61 years. As Registrar General he was responsible for producing the Annual reports of the Registrar General for Ireland, and was census commissioner for the Irish censuses of 1881 and 1891 (Crawford, 29–31).

Grimshaw was born in Co. Antrim in November 1839, his great-grandfather having migrated there from Lancashire to found the calico-printing industry in Ireland. His father, Wrigley Grimshaw, was an eminent dentist. Thomas Grimshaw was educated at Trinity College, Dublin in 1858 and graduated in Arts. He then followed a medical education in Dublin in the School of Physic, and in Steevan's Hospital and Sir Patrick Dun's Hospital, and subsequently became a physician to Cork Street Lying-In Hospital, Dublin Orthopaedic Hospital, and Steeven's Hospital (General Register Office, Dublin, website:

Grimshaw published widely on medical matters both before and after he became Registrar General. He was a joint author of the Manual of Public Health for Ireland, published shortly after the Public Health (Ireland) Act of 1875 (Grimshaw, 1975), and the sole author of Facts and Figures about Ireland (Grimshaw, 1893). In conjunction with Dr. J. W. Moore, he published a paper on an infective form of pneumonia, which they termed pythogenic pneumonia, which foreshadowed the modern theory of pneumonia aetiology (Grimshaw and Moore). The frequent epidemics of enteric fever in Dublin attracted his attention, and he delivered a series of lectures on the best means of preventing them. He suggested sanitary improvements, many of which were carried out, especially the clearing of congested areas in the city (Grimshaw, 1872). Grimshaw thus combined the roles of administrative head and chief medical officer that were performed by separate officers in the English General Register Office, i.e. the Registrar General and the Superintendent of Statistics.

Grimshaw sat on numerous official bodies. He was President of the Statistical Society of Ireland in 1888–1890; of the Dublin Sanitary Association from 1885 to 1888; and of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland in 1895 and 1896. He was a member of the Commission on the Dietary of Irish Prisons in 1880, and of the Commission to inquire into the sanitary condition of the Royal Barracks, Dublin, in 1887. He was also active in philanthropic ventures, such as the Dublin Hospital Sunday Fund, the National Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and the National Hospital for Consumption at Newcastle, Co. Wicklow. In 1897 he was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (C. B.). In this way Grimshaw was much more of a public figure than his exact English contemporary as Registrar General, the rather ineffectual Sir Brydges Henniker.

The main innovation in the Irish censuses under Grimshaw was the introduction of a land survey in 1881. This had been suggested by the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland as a means of collecting information on the number of people on farms of differing sizes. The number, value and extent of agricultural holdings in Ireland were recorded according to Poor Law unions, counties and provinces, as was the number of people on each holding, and the number and nature of houses. Grimshaw saw this survey as providing "a standard of comparison for those who desire to compare the results annually published by the Registrar General in his report on the Agricultural Statistics of Ireland, with the actual condition of the agricultural holdings and their occupiers" (Census of Ireland 1881, General report, 11). The land survey was retained and published in the General report for each subsequent census to 1911(Crawford, 29–31). Grimshaw also experimented with the introduction of a social classification of occupations for the city of Dublin, which preceded that used in England and Wales by 30 years (Szreter, 80–1).


Census of Ireland, 1881, General report, maps and diagrams, tables, appendicies BPP 1882 LXXVI (C.3365). [View this document: General report, Ireland, 1881]

E. Margaret Crawford, Counting the people. A survey of the Irish censuses, 1813–1913 (Dublin, 2003).

Thomas Wrigley Grimshaw, Remarks on the prevalence and distribution of fever in Dublin, illustrated by a map, tables and diagrams, with appendices on sanitary matters in that city (Dublin: Fannin & Co., 1872).

Thomas Wrigley Grimshaw et al., Manual of public health for Ireland (Dublin, 1875)

Thomas Wrigley Grimshaw, Facts and figures about Ireland (Dublin, 1893)

T. W. Grimshaw and J. W. Moore, 'Pythogenic pneumonia', Dublin Journal of Medical Science (1875)

Simon Szreter, Fertility, class and gender in Britain 1860–1940 (Cambridge, 1996).