By Ian White from the Census Team at the Office for National StatisticsThe census records in England and Wales, available for family history research, go back to 1841 – though the history of the census goes back much further than that.
The concept of the census was first proposed in 1753, but was regarded then with superstitious suspicion – remembering the calamities that had befallen the Israelites after King David’s census, and the troubles following the Domesday Book. It was therefore rejected by Parliament but in the light of Malthus’ concerns about food production and to ensure a large enough military to fight against Napoléon, the idea of the census was resurrected at the end of the 18th century.
John Rickman carried out the first four censuses but none of these records survived and, in any case, no names or addresses were recorded by enumerators, which would have enabled us to trace our earlier ancestors.
It was not until the creation of the General Register Office (GRO) in 1837 that the census details were recorded on household forms, to be copied into Records Books by the local enumerators. The first Registrar General, Thomas Lister, feared that the number of illiterate householders would be too high for them to answer to the questions themselves – even though the questions were quite simple compared with the census today. This was, indeed, the case. So we must thank Lister’s foresight in getting the enumerators to ensure that the answers were recorded in a way that is still legible to us today.
Though the number of questions gradually increased throughout the Victorian period, Lister’s method of recording the information remained the same, although the answers to some of the questions – such as “Is the person an idiot?” or “Can the person speak Welsh?” – caused some difficulties from time to time. But, by 1911 the amount of information collected greatly increased, particularly because of a new enquiry into women’s fertility and more questions about occupation and industry. So, the Registrar General of the day, Bernard Mallet, realised that the time was right to introduce new technology to code and process the data.
Herman Hollerith’s new-fangled punched cards and tabulators meant that all this new data could be processed much more quickly and with fewer errors. Greater literacy meant that the information could now be collected directly from the household’s form so there was no longer any need for the enumerators to copy all the answers into their Record Books. More time and money saved for Mr Mallet but for us, 100 years later, this means that when we look up our great-grandfather’s record from the 1911 Census we can see his actual handwriting, rather than the enumerator’s transcript.
We will, of course, have to wait a bit longer for the 1921 and later censuses (it’s important for our census takers to honour their commitments to keep such personal information safe and secure for 100 years), but when each consecutive census is released, the records will show a rapidly changing 20th century society, reflected by more new questions asked each time and changes in methodology, such as:
The records from the 2011 Census - carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in March this year – will not be available until January 2112, but the census archive will still contain, until then, a wealth of information invaluable for social and genealogical research. And, increasingly so as each ten yearly census is released.
But in 2112, all that could come to end if the present census turns out to be the last in its present format. In a few years’ time we will know the future of this venerated 210-year old institution. What do you think?
About Ian White
Ian is a member of the 2011 Census Team at the Office for National Statistics, and has been involved, in one capacity or another, on each census since 1971. He claims to be the last current member of ONS who actually worked at Somerset House, the home of the very first GRO census in 1841 (but he insists that he does not remember that one). Naturally, he has a particular interest in the history of the census, about which he has just written a book, Census and Sensitivity, to be published later this year.