There are rumblings that today’s national census might be the last. The Office of National Statistics ‘Beyond 2011 Project’ is looking at different options for producing more frequent population data that are better suited to the needs of public and commercial users.

Meanwhile critics of the census want to see it abolished on the grounds that it is intrusive and expensive.

If these arguments win the day, we will say farewell to one of the most enduring data collection exercises in British history that has been carried out every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, making this year’s the 21st.

Cambridge historian, Dr Stephen Thompson has spent much of the past six years studying the history of the early British census.

He says: “Studying the 19th-century census can give us important insights into how statistics came to dominate modern political debate. The census was the most ambitious data gathering exercise ever undertaken by the British government and its results were used to inform a wide range of policy discussions including taxation, welfare reform, and the re-drawing of parliamentary constituency boundaries in 1832.”

It is expected that 25 per cent of the 60 million or so people taking part in the 2011 census will complete their return online.

Householders will answer up to 56 questions, including a new question asking migrants how long they have been in the UK, and how long they intend to stay.

The 1801 census took place in very different circumstances – a world apart from today’s affluence and super-connectivity. In the early 19th century, the population was around 10.9 million, around 40 per cent of men and 60 per cent of women were illiterate, one in nine people received poor relief, and the postal system was the main means of long distance communication.

The census of 10 March 1801 was prompted by a national crisis.

The previous year’s harvest had failed due to a cold and wet summer and heavy rain during the harvest itself. Cereal prices had doubled in under a year and yields were 25 per cent lower than expected. This subsistence crisis in turn produced a manufacturing recession and thousands of workers were laid off. According to contemporary reports, poor children in Wolverhampton were seen ‘picking Potatoe pearings on the Dunghill to boil for food’. Rioting broke out across the Midlands and in London, with protestors calling for the imposition of maximum food prices.

The man who pressed parliament to pass a ‘Bill for ascertaining the population of Great Britain’ was the MP for the Cornish borough of Helston, and future Speaker of the House of Commons, Charles Abbot. “By the time winter set in, thousands of people were going hungry. Parliament was recalled for an emergency session in November 1800,” says Thompson. “Charles Abbot, who had long thought that better knowledge of population was essential for ‘wise legislation and good government’, saw an opportunity and seized it. Abbot argued that a national headcount would enable the government to plan the distribution of grain supplies more effectively,” says Thompson.

The people appointed to carry out this first census were the overseers of the poor, an office that existed in every parish in England and Wales. It was their job to ensure that landowners paid their rates and that the sums collected were distributed to the poor and needy: a precursor of welfare benefit payments, this was known as parish relief. Overseers were often farmers, and therefore important local employers, sometimes liked, sometimes loathed.

The utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, who wanted a much more detailed census than the model proposed by Abbot, described them as ‘frequently illiterate, or almost illiterate’.

In March 1801 every overseer of the poor, of which there were more than 14,000, was charged with walking to every house or dwelling in their parish and recording the numbers of families, the number of men and women, and the number of persons employed in agriculture; trade, manufactures, or handicraft; or any other occupation.

This month’s census contains 56 questions: in 1801 only six questions were asked and no names or addresses were sent to Whitehall. “Although central government only wanted a headcount of inhabitants, the census legislation stipulated that overseers should hand over any lists of names and addresses drawn up during the enumeration to the churchwardens for safe-keeping,” says Thompson.

In Scotland – where parishes were more remote and the office of overseer did not exist – the local authorities had an extra six months in which to collect the information and return it to London.

The figures obtained in each parish throughout the land were presented to magistrates at the Easter Quarter Sessions and from there were sent on to the Home Office in Whitehall to be tallied.

This year’s census results will be processed by ten high-speed scanners, capable of capturing the information from one questionnaire in 0.25 seconds.

Six hundred million sides of A4 are expected to be processed between March and December.

The number crunching of the census returns gathered in 1801 was carried out by a handful of clerks, using pen and ink, before being printed in two volumes by the parliamentary printer, Luke Hansard.

The clerks, about whom little is known, worked under a man called John Rickman who later became Charles Abbot’s secretary. He oversaw the first four British censuses and died shortly before the fifth census was taken in 1841.

While the 2011 census has been criticised for its projected expense – around £482 million – parliament spent less than £6,000 (well under £0.5 million in today’s money) on the 1801 count.

It took just over a year before the complete results were published, by which time the crisis in grain supply was over and prices had fallen.

The government too had changed following William Pitt’s resignation over the issue of granting Roman Catholics equal rights. “Although it had not fulfilled its initial purpose, the usefulness of a national census as a tool for informing policy had been established and the next census took place on 27 May 1811.

The census machinery remained largely unchanged until 1841, when the newly established General Register Office decided to conduct a much more thorough enquiry, including the collection of ages, names and addresses,” says Thompson.

The 1801 census was the realisation of a scheme first mooted in 1753, by another Cornish MP, Thomas Potter. Potter wanted to combine a national head count with a system of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths. The bill was quashed by the Anglican hierarchy, who were able to exercise significant influence in the House of Lords.

“There was fierce opposition from the clergy to the introduction of any kind of civil registration, because it was thought that people would no longer use the parish church to mark traditional rites of passage.

"Baptisms, marriages and burials represented an important source of dependable revenue for the clergy.

Abbot learned the lessons of 1753 and his more modest scheme did not appear to threaten ecclesiastical sources of income. Nonetheless, it was hit and miss during December 1800 when the Church of Scotland objected to the census bill because it originally required Scottish ministers to perform the headcount in parishes north of the border. The only way Abbot could get his bill passed was by removing the Scottish clergy and devolving the enumeration duties on to parish schoolmasters,” says Thompson.

The status of organised religion is a hotly debated topic in this year's census which contains a voluntary question about belief for only the second time. However, unlike in 1753 and 1801, it is the non-religious, especially the British Humanist Association, who are most concerned by the implications of census-taking.

The BHA argues that the 2001 census, which showed that 72 per cent of the population in England and Wales described themselves as Christian, produced
‘inaccurate and misleading data'. It is leading an advertising campaign under the slogan: ‘Not religious? In this year’s census say so.’

Image: extract from the census return from the village of Winwick in Lancashire, 1801

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