The 2021 Census

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:28 am

Census historyThe UK census is a decennial occurrence, held since 1801, with some regional or national variations and the exception of 1941 (when we had other things on our minds).  Therefore, 2021 is a census year – at least, it is in England and Wales; Scotland has delayed its census until 2022 “due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.” I’ve been reminded of this year’s Special Event by official printed matter dropping onto the doormat, and by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who got in touch to plug their excellent digital time capsule idea.  More of that later: first – what on earth are we talking about?

What is the census?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition of census is: ‘official numbering of population or a class of things, with various statistics.’ Something you can count on, then.

AbacusOn one day every ten years, every household in the UK has a legal obligation to fill in a questionnaire about every person resident at the property on that particular night, including their age, race, occupation and relationship status.  The exercise focusses on a single period in time to minimise the risk of missing anyone, or counting them more than once.  The chosen day is usually a Sunday in March or April, when there is reasonable daylight so that officials have enough daylight to collect returns, and people are less likely to be on holiday. By law, everyone must be accounted for in the census and there is a fine of up to £1,000 if a return is not completed, or if false information is given.

The modern census is a snapshot of life in Britain, used for statistical purposes only, by central and local government, as well as other organisations, in theory to help fulfil their obligations and plan ahead so that the right resources are in place across the whole spectrum of activities, including transport, education and health. This is why everything runs so smoothly in the UK.  Confidentiality is protected by law; it is a crime for anyone to share personal census information unless required or permitted by law. Such personal information remains confidential for 100 years.

The census is a hugely expensive exercise.  One article on the BBC suggested that it’s possible that 2021 will be the last census and that alternative means will be used to gather the same data, a proposal which some might find slightly sinister.

History of the census

It is thought that the first census ever was undertaken by the Babylonians 6,000 years ago to work how much food was needed to feed their people.  The Egyptians and Chinese used censuses in around 2,500 BC and, much later, the Romans undertook censuses every five years to identify tax obligations and military resources. Most of us know the story of Joseph and Mary having to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a census, or to be taxed – depending on your version of the Bible.

In Britain, the first quasi-census is generally considered to be the Domesday Survey of 1086, a unique inventory of William the Conqueror’s captured kingdom of England.  Its purpose was to determine the value of lands and other assets for taxation purposes and it still provides an invaluable picture of Norman England.  It of course excluded those parts of Britain run by other people, such as most of Wales, part of modern Cumbria and all of Scotland; and, for some reason, it also carelessly omitted London and Winchester.  Even so, astonishingly, most of the places it does record are still there.  Two hundred years later, in March 1279, King Edward I commissioned a much more detailed survey of landholding in England which, unlike Domesday, actually gives the names of those in occupation, including peasants.  The returns were arranged by hundred, a pre-Conquest unit of local government, and therefore came to be known as the Hundred Rolls.  They are called rolls because that’s how such records were kept, in rolls of parchment.  Sadly, only a very limited number of Hundred Rolls have survived – and nothing appears to have been done with the information gathered anyway.

1891 CensusVirginia, Quebec, Novia Scotia, Sweden and some German and Italian states all carried out some form of census in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the first systematic, regular nationwide enumeration was undertaken by the United States in 1790. Britain didn’t get there until 1801 because, apparently, there was considerable opposition, by those who thought the idea was sacrilegious (no, I can’t explain that) and by those concerned about the resulting information being helpful to foreign enemies (which I understand, however daft).  In the end, real fears about the ability to feed the population, and a desire to know how many men were available to fight Napoleon, carried the day. The first census wasn’t held in Ireland until 1821 and the subsequent history is slightly different to Britain’s, though since 1951 censuses in Northern Ireland have been held at the same time as the rest of the United Kingdom.

The 1841 British census was a watershed.  For the first time, the head of each household was given a form to fill in on behalf of everyone else in the household.  Previously, information had been gathered by appointed officials – including school teachers in Scotland.  And, for the first time, names were included – as well as age, sex and occupation.  The information requested grew, or changed, with each successive census.  By 1871, the government wanted know whether people were imbeciles, idiots, or lunatics. These questions have subsequently been dropped; presumably, they don’t need to know that anymore.  The 1891 census recorded Welsh speakers.  In 1911, people were expected to note the parish and county of birth for anyone born in the UK (which then included all of Ireland), or, if born elsewhere in the British Empire, the colony or dependency, and the state or province. Special books were compiled for workhouses, army barracks, hospitals and ships, whether in home ports or overseas. The results of the 1931 census for England and Wales were accidentally destroyed by fire in 1942.  Some accident, eh? “Awfully sorry, sir; we seem to have inadvertently burnt the irreplaceable records of 42 million people.”  So, there was effectively no census for England and Wales between 1921 and 1951, although a register, the 1939 Register, was taken on 29 September 1939 in order to produce identity cards.  It is sometimes referred to as ‘the wartime Domesday Book’.  Unlike a census, the information was updated over time and later also used to issue ration books and for other purposes, such as planning the National Health Service.

Anyroadup, by 1966 people were being asked about car ownership and travel to work.  In 1991, a question about ethnicity was introduced.  In 2001, people were asked to voluntarily state their religion; some 400,000 admitted to being Jedi, or derivatives thereof.  In 2011, the census gave people the opportunity to state whether they felt they were English, or Cornish – as well as the Welsh, Scottish and other wonderful optional choices of national origin that had been available to participants in 2001.

The census in 2021

Census 2021Census day for 2021 is Sunday 21 March for households in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland’s census will be held in March 2022.  The census for England and Wales is organised and managed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).  2021 is the first primarily online census. The ONS aims to have 75% of census returns completed online, with the remainder completed in traditional hard copy.  Three new questions cover whether people have ever served in the UK Armed Forces, what sexual orientation they are and which gender they identity as (male, female, undecided/other?). The last two questions are voluntary.

Here is more about the Census in England and Wales and the Census in Scotland.

Capture the moment

So, what’s this about a digital time capsule?  Well, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has a rather good initiative, which they’ve called the #Census2021TimeCapsule photo challenge.  The idea is to take a photo of five things that represent your life today, post it on Instagram tagging @kensingtonandchelseacouncil and the Council will release the entries in 2031.  There’s also a chance to win £100 in Amazon vouchers.  See the poster for more information.

If you don’t live in Kensington or Chelsea – and let’s face it, most of us do not – you could still do something like this.  Take photos and store them for the future; and take a copy of your census return to keep with your family records.

Census time capsule

Access to information

Census information is of course a primary source for historians and genealogists.  For example, take a look at Britain’s population growth as the industrial revolution really got into gear:

Great Britain Population Growth (millions)
1801 1851 1901
England & Wales 9 18 32.5
Scotland 1.5 3 4.5

The population of the United Kingdom was estimated to be just under 67 million in 2019 (about 65 million for Britain alone). For a breakdown, see British people.

General statistics from recent censuses are available from the ONS.  The 100-year rule, however, means that personal information is not publicly available.  Details of the 1921 census are due to become available in 2022 (although there is a campaign for earlier release of the data) and the last fully available census is that of 1911. That said, I believe it’s possible to request records such as birth, marriage and death certificates, because these are a matter of public record.

The censuses from 1841 to 1911 are available on line.  There’s a guide to access on the National Archives’ website.  However, access is via commercial organisations and there is a charge to view full search results and digitised images.  They can be viewed free of charge at The National Archives in Kew, which is of course handy for most people, and at some libraries if you can find one that hasn’t been closed.  Local record offices may also hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own area.  Whilst appreciating that it is expensive to digitise old records, and provide access, it does irritate me slightly to be asked to pay to see something that our forebears have actually helped to create. Moreover, when you see how taxpayers’ money is often wasted in pointless projects, senseless bureaucracy, inflated legal and consultancy fees – and so on – with little effort you could get quite cross.  I’d write to my MP, Richard Cranium, but from personal experience know him to be as much use as a chocolate teapot.

Don’t forget to complete your census return, will you?

67 thoughts on “The 2021 Census”

  1. This is great. You are right to point out that Ireland was treated separately before 1911, which is frustrating for those of us researching Anglo-Irish history since many census records are missing. This is partly because counties in Ireland were responsible separately for census-keeping, and some were better at it than others. But mainly it is because the public record office in Dublin was destroyed by an explosion and fire in the civil war of 1922.

  2. Mike, I learned several things from your wonderfully comprehensive post! I put the word out on Twitter for my fellow genealogists. I’d be the first one to object to “nosey questions” if I didn’t realize that the census info is “gold” to genealogists. So I would implore those who don’t fill out the census for such reasons as “took exception to the head of the household stuff,” or those who give humorous or otherwise false responses, to just answer the questions. Think of your great great grandchildren a hundred years from now trying to get to know YOU through such information.

    1. Thank you, Jean! In an ideal world, you’re right – but I’m guessing census records can never be 100% accurate – people will mislead for their own reasons – perhaps trying to hide their misdeeds. I guess you could also say that obviously odd responses are signs of the times!

  3. I think you have perfected the art of cynicism, Mike! A most enjoyable read; thank you. My mother is one of the 25% who hopes to be submitting their data on paper as she has no internet. She had to apply for the form either by phone or on-line(!) but the phone-number she was given was unobtainable. Richard requested the form for her on-line but it still hasn’t arrived – three days and counting. Hmmm…..

  4. So far I’m really enjoying your articles and discussions. I just can’t enough info on your country. I’m looking forward to visiting again if we ever tame Covid.

  5. I am not sure how successful this census will be as it directs people to online forms. These are more difficult to navigate than paper forms. I suspect some people will give up.

  6. Being an avid family history researcher, I am eagerly awaiting the release of the 1921 census next year.

    This year I am also a Census Support Officer alongside my usual job. Which reminds me, I need to fill in my own form!

  7. A good idea to keep census returns with family records – I’ll do this. If nothing else it would save future researchers the problem of looking it all up!

  8. There must be something I am fundamentally failing to grasp here – you say it is a crime for anyone to share personal census information. Does that mean if I fill in the form with my name I can no longer tell anyone my name? That is really daft! I think I will write to my MP immediately!

      1. I thought I just did. Fertang! Reminiscent of Mr. Angry. Is he still around? I don’t hear UK radio anymore, sad I know.

  9. We did our census last summer. In the US, you can get census online up to the 1940 census, which is great when doing family history projects. I’ve found lots of really great trails for genealogy there!

  10. that was fascinating to read about; I like the idea of everyone filling it out at the same time on a specific date. talk about a collective experience..

    It’s good to know that Jedi is such a popular religion in the U.K.

    so much data, so little time…

  11. I’m terrified that I’ll forget. When it was that huge booklet it would sit on the kitchen table as a reminder, but it’s just a sheet of paper now and doesn’t proclaim its presence loudly at all.

  12. Hi Mike – I can’t remember previous years … but must have filled it out. Done mine for this year – which one can do … I read the bumph and then did the form on-line … very simple I thought. It can be updated, if necessary – but I don’t expect any changes … unless disaster strikes me between now and then … but unlikely I feel!
    What a thorough explanation … thank you for that – all the best Hilary

  13. mekslibrarian

    This whole census thing is fascinating! I love statistics (being aware of their limits and weaknesses), and maybe in another life I would have become a Data Analyst.
    I wonder how many get really fined the 1,000 quid for not responding or giving false information – how do they check the true/false information anyway?

  14. I made enquiries, as you do, and was told by the O.N.S. that the question in re ‘imbeciles, idiots, or lunatics’ was quietly dropped because it was found to be exaggerating the number of serving politicians in the country.

    Tis interesting to note (to me, at least) that – being officially classified as “of no fixed abode” and only being able to vote if I take the paperwork/fake-address route that also applies to prisoners doin’ time at Her Maj’s pleasure and to those actually in mental institutions (Westminster etc) I am legally bound (£1,000 fine) to complete the thing but must register to do so by providing not just a postcode… but a house name. Choose a house near to where you are moored, they say, and use that as your address to register.

    The first item of information beaten out of me by Government Ltd – false! I am thus bound by law to break the law in order to obey the law… we’re back to ‘…imbeciles, idiots, or lunatics…’. aren’t we. 😉

    I have a mighty objection to being forced to give information which Government Ltd will later sell for hyper-guineas (not fond of the term “megabucks” – the “buck” is not our currency here).

    It’s all part of life’s rich, moth-eaten tapestry.

    1. Henriët Ferguson

      “life’s rich, moth-eaten tapestry”!! Now there’s an expression to remember!

    2. All good points, old chap – especially the first one. To be fair, my understanding is that HMG promises not to sell your information for 100 years. But we all know what government promises are worth.

  15. artandarchitecturemainly

    When I was at uni studying Statistical Methods, the census data was a major source of information students were given to study and analyse. No personal information, of course, but vital for planning hospital facilities, old age homes, primary and secondary schools etc.

  16. I can’t imagine giving people one specific day to complete the census. Here in the US we have a longer period of time. If you don’t fill out your census, eventually you’ll get a knock on the door by someone to get the information. Last year we had that knock, as the census taker had been unable to contact our neighbor. I’m surprised that Scotland’s growth is much slower than England.

    1. Scotland has a smaller population anyway. There was a lot of rural depopulation in Scotland in the 19thC and a lot of emigration too – including to England and the US. I believe the population of Ireland actually shrank – partly also due to famine – but also emigration.

  17. I did not fill out a census form in all the years I was in the U.K. I took exception to the head of the household stuff.
    When in France the census was carried out by the maire’s nosy daughter coming to the house…except she could not get past the geese.
    So far, no census in Costa Rica.
    Of course I see the utility in general terms, but some of the questions bore more on sociology than on forward planning.
    I was never faced with a fine in either country.

  18. I always look forward to your blog posts, Mike. I like that everyone is asked/obliged to fill this form out on the same day! I wonder if this might — on some subtle but not unimportant level — bind all the responders together in civic duty/responsibility. We have a much longer window of time to accomplish this task in the USA. On an unrelated note, I like the idea of a chocolate teapot (as a metaphor for uselessness) very much. Makes me want to go buy a bar of chocolate! I first experienced chocolate containing candied bits of ginger when I was visiting the UK as a teenager, and it remains a favorite. Also quite impressive/foreboding to see how the population tripled (in Scotland) and almost quadrupled (in England) during the first 100 years of the Industrial Revolution…

  19. I see for the time capsule entry it says “On your quilt take a picture…….” Discrimination!!!!!!! Not everyone has a quilt.

    Perhaps they should have left in the requirement to find the imbeciles, idiots, etc. I certainly know a few who qualify!

  20. Wow, we have a census here too but I don’t think we are legally bound to fill it out. Either way, I fill it out anyway. The most recent was last year.

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