The Census in our Newspapers | The British Newspaper Archive Blog


‘A Great National Work’ – Charting the Changing Attitudes to the Census in Our Newspapers in the Nineteenth Century

With the next census fast approaching in England and Wales, we thought we’d delve into the history of the census, and the changing attitudes towards it from its inception in 1801 and throughout the nineteenth century.

From initial fears and suspicions, to feelings of pride and honour, our newspapers chart the evolving attitudes to the modern British census, and how it was depicted in popular culture, in poetry, illustrations and even on the stage.

So read on to discover more about the history of the census, and how our newspapers provide a wonderful insight into how it was perceived during the nineteenth century.

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The First Censuses – 1801 & 1811

Fuelled by fears over Britain’s growing population and the food that would be needed to sustain such growth, the Census Act was passed in 1800. On 10 March 1801, or as soon as possible thereafter, the first census in Britain (after the Doomsday Book) was taken, giving the population of England and Wales as 8.9 million (Wales’s population numbering 541,546) and that of Scotland as 1.6 million.

A Glastonbury town scene, early nineteenth century | Illustrated London News | 25 December 1943

It barely registers in our newspapers, however. This report from The Ipswich Journal4 April 1801, is one of the few:

 Gainsborough, by the late census, contains, males 2094, females 2411; total 4505:- and Lynn, in 1801, males 4541, females 5554; total 10,095. At Swaffham Bulbeck, in Cambridgeshire, the population amounts to 540, the number of males and females being exactly equal.

The census was again taken in May 1811. Penalties of five pounds were imposed for any ‘householders equivocating, or giving a false return,’ as reports the Hampshire Chronicle, 13 May 1811.

Hampshire Chronicle | 13 May 1811

The returns show that the population had increased in Britain by 1.6 million since the last census was taken, the Globe on the 5 June 1811 reporting how ‘The population is considerably increased in all parts of the kingdom.’ The kingdom too was suffering from ‘a melancholy surplus of old maids.’ In places like Norwich, ‘the females [exceeded] the males by nearly 6,000.’

Globe | 5 June 1811

The National Register (London)8 September 1811, conjectured that ‘the effects of war and emigration may be ascertained in comparing the number of Males to Females,’ whilst other changes were afoot. The same newspaper in October 1811 reports how the Census Act was undergoing an important modification:

The population of Ireland is, as it ought to be, to be comprehended in the enumeration; as also his Majesty’s subjects serving in the navy, the army, the merchants’ service, and on board small craft of every description. Without a regulation of this kind, the returns must be deficient, the object of Legislature frustrated, and the physical strength of the Empire remain unascertained.

Suspicion & Ignorance – 1821 & 1831

The taking of the census was, therefore, extended to Ireland in 1821. The 1821 Census was taken on the 28 May, and the Sun (London) a month later reported that ‘from all the information we can obtain, there would appear to be a very considerable increase of inhabitants as compared with the census of 1811.’

The population had risen from 9.5 million to 11.3 million in England over the preceding ten years. The Sun (London) offered its own ideas as to what was behind this population increase:

The year 1811 was a time of war; when, beside other causes of inaccuracy, many people either misunderstood the measure, or from groundless alarms of taxation and military service were not reconciled to being numbered.

‘Compendium of London Types’ – 1830s sketch by George Scharf | The Sphere | 17 January 1931

These dual preventers, ignorance and suspicion, ignorance of the reasons behind the census, and suspicion of its motives (that it could be used for taxation and conscription purposes) pop up time and time again throughout the nineteenth century. However, this article is quick to relate the dutifulness of the people of Gateshead, where ‘the public have…manifested in every instance the utmost readiness to afford the information required.’

By the time the census rolled around again in May 1831, the same dual spectres of ignorance and suspicion raised their ugly heads once more. The Dublin Morning Register, 3 June 1831, reports on the efforts of the ‘foot weary’ enumerators, and the difficulties they faced in collecting the census returns:

In many cases they found it difficult to obtain any returns at all; the papers having been left so long ago, were, in many instances, lost, mislaid, or forgotten; and in many more, from their apparent complexity, not well understood.

Dublin Morning Register | 3 June 1831

But things would change again in 1841, as significant changes were wrought in the very fabric of the census itself.

‘Tyrannical Impertinence’ – 1841

The census of 1841 is widely considered to be the first ‘modern’ census. Following the 1840 Population Act, responsibility for the census was given to the Registrar General, centralising the process for the first time. Also for the first time, every member of a household would be named, with their occupation, age, and gender listed, and whether or not they were born in the county or if they were born outside of England and Wales.

But this change caused uproar, as our newspapers chronicle.

The Dublin Monitor, 3 June 1841, reports how:

Very great offence has been given throughout the country by the minuteness of the inquiries in the printed forms of the new census.

Dublin Monitor | 3 June 1841

The article goes on to relate in similarly heightened terms how:

Every family in the kingdom, we doubt not, considers the Argus eyes of Government fixed upon their most private concerns, and that all the information thus collected will be made public, and thus become food for the scandal and gossip-mongers.

But the greatest source of indignation towards the new census format was the requirement to record the age of every member of the household:

Many families have been thrown into the greatest consternation, not so much on the account of the filling up of the particulars respecting sex, occupation, number of sons and daughters, of servants employed…and other innumerable et ceteras, but principally by the extreme rigidness as to age, which must be noted down to the very year!

It seems, that as then as much as now, that for a woman to give her age was something of a taboo, and just not the done thing, especially for unmarried women. But it was not just a matter of vanity. For an unmarried woman to be older than twenty-five she risked being judged an old maid, and left on the shelf of spinsterhood.

Mrs Mowatt as Lucy in The Bride of Lammermoor | Lady’s Own Paper | 26 January 1850

This alarm caused the appearance in the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 5 June 1841, of a poem from the ‘Maidens of Exon’ entitled ‘On the Approaching Census:

Alas! Mr. Editor, what shall we do?
The Maidens of Exon appeal thus to you;
For some are in terror, and some in a rage,
At the prospect of making record of our age.
Was ever such tyranny thought of, or seen?
And this to occur in the reign of a Queen!
Her Majesty smiles at Old Father Time now, –
But when he has polished his scythe on her brow,
‘Twill take from her pleasure, and sadden her mirth,
That she cannot gloss over the date of her birth.
Say – shall we petition the Commons and Lords?
Say – will they attend to our tears and our words?
Say – shall we descend to evasion and lies?
Or kill the Police with a dart from our eyes?
Their age, let the married ones certainly tell,
For Matrons and Time may agree very well;
Let Widows be forced to tell theirs to a day;
But let us poor Maidens in silence away.
In pity, dear Editor, say what we shall do,
For the Maidens of Exon appeal thus to you.

The editor of the newspaper replied to these concerned ‘Maidens’ that there was sadly nothing he could do to assist their plight.

Illustrated London News | 1 February 1845

Also coming under fire were the Liberal government behind the Population Act and the changes to the census. The Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers’ Gazette, 5 June 1841, labels the census questions ‘somewhat inquisitional,’ but its biggest bugbear is the requirement for women to name their ages in the returns:

…for a government – a liberal government, to send a set of inspectors into every family to insist upon the name and age of every female is a piece of tyrannical impertinence never attempted in this country since the time that the Norman conqueror introduced into it some other feudal practices of the same sort.

Meanwhile another census-themed poem appeared in the Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser, 11 June 1841, lambasting the Liberal party in the following terms:

You overrate the task you have to do;
To take the sense of the people! Truly,
You need not call on half to do that duly;
Pass by each door of lib’ral, whig and rad, –
One half are fools, and t’other stark mad;
From such, who seek by vile pretences,
You cannot take, for they have lost – their senses.
Omit them; for to add to England’s glories,
You’ll find the SENSES only ‘mongst the tories.’

Liverpool Standard and General Commercial Advertiser | 11 June 1841

‘Familiarity with the Great Decennial Act’ – 1851

By the 1851 Census, however, the Derby Mercury reports how ‘The Census has perhaps been less talked about in general society than on former occasions – a natural result of a growing familiarity with the great decennial act.’

It relates how those dual alarms of suspicion and ignorance had ‘now subsided, and the numerical correctness of the returns may be relied on.’

Indeed, attitudes towards the census did seem to be changing, perhaps to include a sort of pride in the filling out of the returns. The Manchester Times, 29 March 1851, looks forward with a ‘thrill of expectation’ to the coming census, and how:

A man will realise the dignity of his patriarchal pre-eminence, in filling up the list of his family, – self, wife, children, boys and girls, men servants and women servants, and the stranger that is within his gates – for whom…he feels immediately responsible!

‘Irish Emigrants Leaving Home – The Priest’s Blessing’ | Illustrated London News | 10 May 1851

Aside from these proud feelings of patriarchal pre-eminence, the census of 1851 provoked feelings of grief and sadness, given the tragedies of the preceding decade. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Ireland.

The Westmeath Guardian and Longford News-Letter, 10 April 1851, speculates how:

We have no doubt but the returns will show a considerable decrease in the population. The number of deaths, by famine, since the last census, and the thousands who have emigrated, must make a difference of more than two million souls between the present census and that of 1841.

Indeed, the population of Ireland fell from 8.2 million in 1841 to 6.5 million in 1851. Therefore, the act of taking the census for many was an acute reminder of what the previous decade had cost them, the family members they had lost and would not now be recording on their census forms.

‘Know Thyself’ – 1861

So for a variety of reasons, whether they be suspicion or sorrow, at the time of the 1861 census the Carlisle Journal, 5 April 1861, is reporting how:

…some people dislike so much to be questioned at all, and others are so apt to blunder when anything is to be put down in ruled columns, that it is very necessary to take all precautions for ensuring as correct and complete a set of answers as possible.

To remedy this, the Registrar General, in charge of the census, requested the ‘co-operation of…the influential classes of society’ to lead the way in setting an example to others. If the population did not by now understand the reason behind the census, the government was apt to educate them.

Newspapers were to play a role in this education, too. The Carlisle Journal reports how ‘the newspaper press’ had been coopted to support the dissemination of information regarding the census.

Census Office, Craig’s Court | Illustrated Times | 13 April 1861 

Carrying the injunction of ‘Know Thyself,’ to this end the Swindon Advertiser and North Wilts Chronicle, 1 April 1861, contained a ‘Memorandum on Some of the Objects and Uses of the Census,’ a part of which runs as follows:

The area of these islands is limited, and it is a matter of no small interest to know how many mouths there are to be fed, at what rates they are increasing, and how they are likely to increase by subsisting marriages; how many are dependent on the several kinds of industry, deriving materials from the produce of the soil, or from the wider fields of foreign commerce. The Census supplies answers to all these questions, and shows how population is increased or diminished by marriages at different ages, by the different species of industry, and by emigration to our vast colonial possessions.

The London City Press, 6 April 1861, chimes in with its own didactic tone, asserting that the ‘particulars required’ are not ‘inquisitorial,’ and how the census is ‘absolutely necessary.’ It warns how ‘every falsification in a census paper is a secret blow at the prosperity of the State,’ looking forward to how it will form the basis of ‘social government, political relationships, reforms, ameliorations and improvements for the next ten years.’

Indexing Department of the Census Office | Illustrated London News | 13 April 1861

And not only were the newspapers educating their readers; the London City Press also hoped that ‘from every pulpit in the land there will be…a monition to the heads of families to exercise scrupulous caution,’ and so the church too should lead the way in educating their flock.

Elsewhere, however, the census was striking a less serious tone. The event had inspired a new farce at the London Adelphi theatre, as the Dundee, Perth, and Cupar Advertiser, 30 April 1861, relates. Featuring a protagonist named Mr. Pater Familias, it deals with the highjinks and hilarity of his chaotic household on the night of the census.

His housekeeper refuses to give her age, the maid refuses to state where she slept (because she hasn’t slept), and then there is a small matter of his niece’s lover who has stayed the night in cupboard, oh, and finally the drunk cabman who delivered the niece’s lover to the house hasn’t left either.

Search room of the Registrar General’s Office | Illustrated Times | 20 April 1860

Luckily, the supposed complexity of the filling out of the census is resolved by the niece’s lover, Mr. Alfred Pumps, who saves the day and becomes engaged to his lover.

‘A Great National Work’ – 1871

Meanwhile by 1871, for some sections of society, the census had become something of a ‘religious duty.’ An enumerator for that year’s census described how the members of the ‘mostly Roman Catholic community’ where he visited had ‘filled up their census papers as a matter of religious duty, and to oblige their priests.’

The Preston Herald, 12 April 1871, goes on to describe how:

Archbishop Manning has taken a very great interest in the census. He understands all about it, and what it is for, so he wrote a circular, which he had printed with instructions to all his clergy to read it out before mass on Palm Sunday. The effect of this was, that when I went round this morning there was not a court or alley with Roman Catholics in it which was not ready.

Archbishop Manning | Penny Illustrated Paper | 21 September 1889

Archbishop Manning had instructed the priests in his diocese to let their parishioners know that there was nothing to ‘fear‘ from the census, negating those decade old suspicions surrounding it. Meanwhile, in Protestant communities such organisations as the Parochial Mission and the Scriptural Readers’ Society had been busy exerting ‘themselves to the utmost to facilitate the prompt and accurate filling up of the returns.’

Therefore, the completion of the census had become ‘a matter of conscience and public duty,’ as reports the Bradford Observer, 30 March 1871. And for others, it gave them an importance in a life where they had very little, this from our enumerator in the Preston Herald:

Many of the people I’ve been to seemed to enjoy the importance of filling in a return. It was a novelty to some of them to find any one cared whether they were married or single, or where they were born, or what they did.

‘Filling Up the Census Paper’ | Penny Illustrated Paper | 1 April 1871

And so, the population could be seen as more motivated than ever to assist the Government in ‘a great National work.’ The Ipswich Journal, 25 March 1871, reports how:

Somehow or other the Government manages to the drill the whole body of householders in the duty of assistant enumerators. The idle, the incompetent, the cranky cross thinkers, are all either overawed by the immense mass of public opinion against them, or converted outright that they must assist.

Taking the Census | Penny Illustrated Paper | 1 April 1871

Proof of this was to be found a decade previously, as the Ipswich Journal details. No fines had been levied in relation to the false completion or incompletion of the census, ‘proof,’ it suggests, ‘of the law-abiding virtues inherent in the character of Englishmen, or of the great respect and love for social institutions,’ which caused their ‘complete surrender’ to the requirements of the census that year.

Sermons and Censuses – 1881

Newspaper articles in April 1881 abound with reports of sermons being preached on the subject of the census. One Reverend Canon Whitelegge, as reports the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 8 April 1881, took the the ‘Book of Numbers’ as his subject, stating that it might more appropriately be called ‘the Book of Censuses.’

Meanwhile, the Reverent J. H. Ouston preached on the census with relation to the ‘Book of the Living’ verse to be found in Psalm 69. His sermon is summarised in the Cumberland & Westmorland Herald, 9 April 1881, and draws a powerful parallel between an individual’s account of themselves in the census, and an individual’s account of themselves to God:

An important application of this thought was that they would have as individuals to deal with God. The sovereign would not have to answer for his subjects, the minister for his people, the father for his family, but each for himself. God required individual repentance, individual faith, individual holiness, everyone giving an account of himself to God. The most insignificant must not imagine that he will pass unnoticed in the crowd.

The Bishop of Marlborough gives a sermon at St. Paul’s | Penny Illustrated Paper | 12 December 1891

Again, Ouston expands on this idea that for some the census was a way to be counted as an individual, to be seen in a way that they had never experienced before:

The census reminded them of their individuality. The present tendency was to speak of the masses, and to overlook the individuals who composed them. The census corrected that tendency, by taking the name, age, sex, occupation, place of birth and condition of each individual. It was well such individuality should, at least at times, be recognised. If looked at rightly, it gave dignity to all, without taking it from any.

Other sermons sounded a more sombre note regarding the census, reflecting on how it could be seen as a kind of memento mori, a reminder of the inevitability of death. The Hastings and St. Leonard’s Observer, 30 April 1881, features a letter from the Reverend G. Hodges:

Ten years have passed away since the census of 1871 was taken. How different life’s register now – kings, emperors, princes, statesmen, bishops, warriors, parents, and children, have gone down to the grave – the place which once knew them, knows them no more…To the living, the census paper teaches them that they are fast gliding down the stream of time towards the ocean of eternity.

Census Office – A Counting Room | Saffron Walden Weekly News | 10 April 1891

‘A Great Deal of Impertinence’ –  1891

To finish our foray into the attitudes towards the census throughout the nineteenth century, we land in 1891. And the old ogres from the past still remain: suspicion and ignorance.

The Saffron Walden Weekly News, 10 April 1891, features a cartoon of Paul Pry as the census, writing how:

On Census Day an Englishman’s home is no longer his castle. It was on Sunday last that the Registrar-General, Sir Brydges Henniker, assumed the garb of Paul Pry, and at the head of an army of ubiquitous busybodies, thrust his nose into every domicile without as much as an apologetic ‘hope I don’t intrude.’

Saffron Walden Weekly News | 10 April 1891

Had nothing been learned in the previous ninety years, whether from pulpit or from newspaper page? It seems, at least according to the Nottingham Journal, 15 April 1891, that nothing had:

It is really astonishing to find how many people seem to have but the faintest recollection and sometimes not even that, of the last numbering of the people. Ten years, however, are quite an age in this galloping world of ours, and there is ample excuse, especially as the census to the great majority ‘is here to-day and gone to-morrow.’

Indeed, people were still mistaking the census enumerators for ‘the tax gatherer’ or the ‘much-dreaded bailiff.’ One poor woman is reported as exclaiming:

…on catching sight of the papers, ‘Oh, dear! Dear! What a shame! Why, I had one of these blessed blue papers only last week.’

Whilst another, residing at Old Radford, decried the enumerator’s ‘impudence,’ telling him it was ‘a great piece of impertinence to come inquiring after people’s private business.’

Newtownards Chronicle & Co. Down Observer | 11 April 1891

Therefore, with each census year, education was needed to inform the population of the necessity of the census, in order to negate their fears and suspicion. This cycle of education and re-education had necessarily to repeat itself, for as the Nottingham Journal observes, ten years is a long time, and a lot can change.

But what our newspapers shine a light on is how our ancestors looked at the census. For them, it might have been a moment of pride, shining a spotlight on their lives in a way they had never experienced before. Or for others, it might have represented a moment of sorrow, in recalling what they had lost.

Our newspapers, therefore, help to make the census a very real, a very living document, reflecting how it was complete snapshot of daily life in Britain. You can discover more by searching our collection here, and meanwhile the England and Wales Censuses of 1841 up to 1911 are available on our sister site Findmypast.


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