The census is a count of all the people in the United Kingdom on one particular day and is taken every ten years. However, collecting information about a country’s population is not a new idea. The Egyptians, for example, used census information to help them build the pyramids and to give out land following the annual flooding of the Nile. The Domesday Book of 1086 was an early attempt to collect information about who held land in England, but it also provided details about the size of the population.
The first government census in Britain was taken in 1801. It may have been prompted by a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, written by Thomas Malthus in 1798. Malthus wrote that the population was growing so quickly that the country would soon not be able to feed itself. It would be important therefore for the government to find out how many people it did have to feed.
There has been a census every ten years since, apart from in 1941 due to our involvement in the Second World War. Between 1801 and 1831 the census contained only general information about numbers of people. The 1841 census was the first to list the names of every individual in a household.
It is clear that the census can be a really valuable source for helping us to find out about the past. After 1851 it recorded the age of each person, their relationship within the family (such as wife, son or daughter) occupation (job) and place of birth. As everybody in the country was asked the same questions we can also use it to compare different areas at the same time or over a period of time.
The country was divided into a number of districts, each with its own enumerator (the person who collected the information). Each household was given a form to fill in. On the day after the census night, the enumerator collected these forms. If the form had not been filled in properly, or if the householder could not write, the enumerator filled it in. The information on the forms was then copied into an enumerator’s book, which was then sent to the Census Office in London.
At the Census Office, the information in the books was checked for accuracy. Afterwards, clerks went through the books gathering information on age, jobs and birthplace. This information was recorded in tables for a final Census Report.
Yet, ever since census information has been collected, not everybody has been keen to give their details. Census enumerators sometimes found it difficult to collect their forms! Even as late as the 1950s, it was believed that some people were giving false information.
To encourage people to provide accurate details, the government has promised that the information will be kept confidential. Since 1966, census records have been closed for 100 years. This means that the only census returns that can be seen at the moment are those up to 1911. Most of the information from the 1911 census has been released, but the most sensitive information will be unavailable until 2012.
The purpose of this lesson is for pupils to look at some pages from the census and learn how much they can discover about people who lived in the past. These returns can also provide unexpected insights, aside from details about jobs and family. In addition, it is worth discussing the nature of the language used in the return; does it betray particular attitudes or values?
The pupils could investigate one household from a single page of the census. How many people lived there, who were they, was the family rich or poor? What sort of home would they have lived in? Using the ‘where born’ column, pupils can also trace the movement of a family by looking at where the parents came from and where they were living when their children were born.
Of course, the census can be an excellent source for students to find out about the history of their family or local area. Classes could look at a particular street or house. They could also look at two areas in the same census year and work out if they are rich or poor. They could do this by comparing the jobs, the size of household and the presence of servants. The ‘age column’ shows how old children were when they started working and how long people worked before they retired. The census can give information about how long people lived. It is rare to see anyone listed older than today’s retirement age in Victorian census data.
The national set of census returns for England, Wales and the Channel Islands for the period 1841-1891 is available on microfilm held at The National Archives, Kew. The 1901 census is available on microfiche. However, all of these census records are also available online with our partners, though there is a charge to download documents. Most local and county record offices hold microfilm or microfiche copies of the census returns for their own areas, excluding the 1911 census which is only available online.
Today, census information is used by the government and local authorities to help plan for new schools, hospitals, housing and transport.
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