About the  Census
Events gallery heading 1901: Living at the Time of the Census Events of 1901
Why Take a Census?
Early census taking
Counting people and collecting information about a country's population is not new. The ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Chinese, Egyptians and Romans all took regular censuses of their populations. In more recent times, La Nouvelle France (Quebec) and Acadie (Nova Scotia) carried out 16 surveys between 1665 and 1754; there was a census in Iceland in 1703, and in the 18th century, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and various Italian states also held censuses.

Britain, however, was reluctant to hold a census of its population. There were widespread fears that a census could be used for taxation purposes and that it would reveal military weaknesses - in the words of one MP, speaking in 1753, that it would 'be totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty'. There was, nevertheless, a general interest in knowing how populous the country was. The best-known estimate was made by Gregory King, who concluded in 1695 that the population of England and Wales was 5.5 million.

'Computations of the number of people' - link to an enlarged version large file - may be slow to download (70k)

The first census

At the end of the 18th century, the debate regarding population size was given added impetus by the publication of Thomas Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus argued that the population was growing so quickly that the country would soon be unable to feed itself. Publication of the essay coincided with a period of war, bad harvests and food shortages, and the concern these factors generated may have persuaded the government to carry out the first official census in 1801.

How has census information been used?
Census information has always been of invaluable use to government. In the early 19th century, it brought for the first time an accurate knowledge of the size of the population. The many uses of census information have included gauging the number of men of age to bear arms, providing information on life expectancy, and allowing the study of patterns of migration, overcrowding of housing, transport problems and standards of living. The information is also used by local government, businesses and organisations in the voluntary and private sectors to plan new services, choose the location of new developments, apply for funding and argue for changes in legislation.

The other major use of census information is for the study of history. The statistics produced through analysis of the census returns have been used by social and economic historians to study changing family size, migration patterns, housing and occupational structures. Demographic historians use the data to draw conclusions about population growth and decline. Local and community historians plunder the original returns in the census enumerators' books to look in-depth at life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Family historians also use this information for details about individual residents in the country on census night. Not only is it possible to find out the names and basic details of family members, the information recorded also provides many alternative avenues for investigation.

Follow this link to use the www. link - opens in new window 1901 census online.

The Changing Census , 1911-2001 The Changing Census, 1801-1901 Why Take a Census? The 1901 Census