Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:28 am
The 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.
On 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.
Virginia, 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 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.
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.
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)|
|England & Wales||9||18||32.5|
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?