Parliament passed the Census Act in 1800 and the first official census of England and Wales took place on 10th March 1801. Information was collected from each household and the population was measured at 9 million. Previous estimates had ranged from 8 to 11 million.

The Industrial Revolution had increased the pressure on the British workforce and it was vital the government could measure the exact working population of the country. The wars with France of the 1790s also created the need to know exactly how many eligible fighting men there were.

The trigger of the Census Act was the publication in 1798 of Thomas Malthus’ essay “Principle of Population” which suggested that the population of Britain would soon outstrip sources of food and other supplies.

An army of clerks using only pens and paper processed information about every person in the land. Technology did not reach the census until 1911 when punch cards and mechanical sorting were introduced. Computers were first used in 1961.

The information contained in the census is protected by law and it can only be used to create statistics until 100 years have passed. For this reason the most recent census that can be accessed is 1911. The 1921 census will be released in 2022 and then there will not be another release until 2052; the 1931 census was destroyed in the Blitz and no census was taken in 1941.

The 1911 census is the first for which the original household schedules still exist. Until then the forms given to each head of house were transcribed into the enumerators’ books and are therefore open to mistakes.

This has been further complicated in the digital age when errors in transcribing the original documents often result in making it extremely difficult to find the relevant record.

More more information about each census please see our individual census pages:

1841 census     1851 census     1861 census     1871 census

1881 census     1891 census     1901 census     1911 census

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