The British census: What a country wants to know about itself

Until I found out why so many people claimed to be Jedis on the 2001 census (and I’ll tell you the tale eventually), I thought censuses were inherently boring. They’re not. So let’s find out how the British census came into being and how it’s changed.

And yes, the plural of census does seem to be censuses, although the limited range of dictionaries I’ve been able to discuss this with don’t see any reason that the word should need a plural, so I’ve had to take Lord Google’s word on it. Corrections, arguments, and general moaning about the degradation of the language are all welcome.

The first official British census was in 1801, but long before that census-like creatures already roamed the land. The Romans wanted to know how many people they could tax. William the Conqueror wanted to know what he owned, down to the last chicken feather. He didn’t demand a complete count of the humans. Why bother? None of them had feathers.

Irrelevant photo: a hellebore.

In 1279, Edward I wanted to know about landholding, and since his survey was arranged in hundreds it became known as the Hundred Rolls. It recorded not only the number of cottars, villeins, serfs, and freeholders on each manor, but also their names, the size of their holdings, and their obligations to the lord. (The words cottars and so forth all describe a person’s relationship to the land and to its feudal lord–basically, their degree of freedom or unfreedom.)

Having collected all that information, Edward didn’t do anything in particular with it, but historians are grateful for the bits of it that have survived. They can read through them and see in detail the structure of the individual manors.

After Edward, interest in who and what was out there disappeared from the national discussion for a handful of centuries, and with it those roaming census-like beasts. Bishops were responsible for counting the number of families in their dioceses, but that was to a census as a cat is to a tiger. 

Starting in the seventeenth century, other countries began introducing censuses (no, that really is the plural)–Quebec (then New France, which counted 3,215 people) in 1666, Iceland in 1703, Sweden in 1749–but Britain retained a well of belief that it was a sacrilege to count people (something biblical about King David, a census, and a plague) and people who didn’t object on those grounds thought a census would reveal the country’s strengths and weaknesses to its enemies. 

In the eighteenth century, the pressure to take a census grew and a Cornish Member of Parliament, Thomas Potter, proposed a combined head count and register of births, deaths, and marriages. The last part of the proposal stirred the Anglican clergy into opposition, since registering those events was an important source of revenue. On top of which, if tracking the landmarks in people’s lives became a civil responsibility, the church’s role would shrink. Who could predict where that might lead? 

The next proposal was more modest. Another Cornish MP, Charles Abbott, proposed a simple census, dropping the idea of registering births, deaths, and marriages. In England, the Overseers of the Poor would count people, since they didn’t have a church to protest for them from the extra work. They were to be helped by tithingmen, constables, headboroughs, and other people you’ve never heard of.  

But Scotland didn’t have any parallel official, and the initial idea was to have ministers make the count, which the Scottish church objected to, so the responsibility was shifted to schoolmasters. They got six months more than the English to complete the work because the population was so spread out.

According to the National Archives, the census was composed of six questions involving “the number of inhabited and uninhabited houses in the parish and how many families occupied them; the number of people in the parish and their employment; and numbers of baptisms, burials and marriage.” It didn’t record names or addresses. The act didn’t apply to Ireland, where the first modern census was taken twenty years later.

But it wasn’t just the more modest dimensions of the census that moved parliament to allow it. The summer’s grain harvest had been a disaster–a quarter less than expected–and prices had doubled. Manufacturing went into a recession and workers were laid off. People were hungry and rioters were calling for limits on the price of food. And to add to the general good cheer, Thomas Malthus had already published his argument that population growth would outstrip food supplies very soon. So MPs were willing to hear Abbott’s argument that knowing something about the population of the country they were trying desperately to run was necessary for “wise legislation and good government.” 

Having said all that, some people argue that the more compelling drive was wanting to know how many able-bodied men were available to fight the Napoleonic Wars. 

Either way, “In March 1801 every overseer of the poor, of which there were more than 14,000, was charged with walking to every house or dwelling in their parish and recording the numbers of families, the number of men and women, and the number of persons employed in agriculture; trade, manufactures, or handicraft; or any other occupation.”

The population turned out to be 9 million. Estimates had ranged from 8 million to 11 million.

In 1841, the census was modernized, meaning a registrar general was put in charge of organizing it in England and Wales (that came later in Scotland) and local officers were put in charge of the work. 

This was also the first time that the heads of households were given a form to fill out on a specified day

The head-of-household system is responsible for my household refusing to fill out a 1970-whatever U.S. census. We struck a small blow against the assumption that one adult was the head of the household–that one being the male of the species if one was available–leaving the non-head to be the hind end of the household.

We didn’t bring the system down, but I’d do it again, and whatever the 1970-whatever U.S. census says, keep in mind that it’s incomplete.

But I’ve gotten ahead of the tale. Britain took a census every ten years except in 1941. In 1939, the National Registration Act did a thorough nose count so that identity cards could be issued. That was a good enough substitute. World War II was raging. The country had other things on its mind.

The 1931 census records, in case you’re looking for them, were lost in a fire.

From there on, it’s all boredom until we come to the 2001 census, when an email made the rounds urging people to write their religion down as Jedi. According to the email, if 10,000 people did it, it would become a “fully recognised and legal religion.”

This was fully recognized bullshit, but a lot of people did it anyway, possibly because the second argument was more compelling: “Do it because you love Star Wars,” the email said, “or just to annoy people.” 

The campaign accomplished two things: It got 390,127 people to say they were Jedis and it got a lot of people in their late teens and twenties–a group that’s usually undercounted–to complete the form. 

In that same census, 72% of the population said they were Christian, which the British Humanist Association considers a vast overstatement of people’s beliefs, as opposed to their historical and cultural association with the religion. Hawley’s small and unscientific survey says they’re probably right.

Deciding what to ask isn’t simple. Even the apparently simple question of what sex a person is has become complicated, or always was but we’re only just noticing. What does a country really want to know about itself, and what does it need to know? And once it gets the answers, how does it understand the information? 

I can’t answer any of those questions. I just thought I’d throw them at you and see what happens. When I was young and clueless and an intern, of sorts, at a social service agency, I was asked to redesign the form people filled out when they walked through the door. That they gave the job to me shows you how important they thought it was. It did keep me, briefly, from playing in traffic. Since every form I’d ever been handed asked my marital status, I started with that. 

Why, the person in charge asked, do we want to know this? 

I couldn’t think of a single reason, although there might have been one. But I’d never thought about approaching a form that way: What do we want this information for? I won’t say the question changed my life, but it has stayed with me. 

I don’t know if they ever redesigned the form, but that’s as far as I got with the job.

My point, though, is that you could probably learn as much about a country by studying what they ask as you could by reading the answers. 

The most recent census, 2011’s, asked a string of questions about who lived at what address, what their relationships were, and who was there overnight on one particular date. Then it wanted to know about the place itself–its heating, its ownership, its rooms. It wanted to know about the people: their age, sex, car ownership, marital status, health, country of origin, ethnicity, nationality (that includes the British nationalities: English, Welsh, etc.), primary language, comfort level with the English language, passport, religion, past residence, employment, and education.

A summary says the census shows “an increasingly ageing population; a more mobile population with more complex living arrangements; increasing numbers of migrant communities; greater numbers of people generally, and more single-person households and dwellings with multiple household occupation.” 

The summary itself shows confusion about the difference between commas and semicolons. 

You’re welcome to read it for yourself. I got bored.

Britain will take a new census is 2021, but that may be its last. The Office of National Statistics is looking for less expensive (and, they say, less intrusive) ways to collect more useful data more often. That’s neatly set up so you’ll agree with it: Who could argue with less, less / more, more? 

Me, possibly, although I’m not sure and no one cares anyway. I’m waiting to hear what the implications are, and I haven’t yet.

The new system might mean tracking every contact people have with government agencies and anonymizing it to produce a statistical picture of the country. It’s intrusive, but invisibly so. And what the hell, the corporations are already tracking us.

I haven’t seen anything about whether they’ll collect roughly the same sort of information, whether they’re considering other questions, or whether the system would allow some unforeseen but suddenly important question to be plugged in and calculated later. I have, however, read that in other situations anonymized data is less anonymous than you’d think. I don’t know if that will hold true for this.

93 thoughts on “The British census: What a country wants to know about itself

  1. I must have filled in the census a few times but I can never remember doing it. I had no idea that 1931 was lost, I just thought they would not let you see the records before 1911 because they wanted to charge you money for it, or something.

    Liked by 2 people

      • I have done some casual census browsing for family history and social history purposes. They are fascinating documents. I looked into my husband’s Donegal family via census (and marriage & birth registrations) and did get a shocking picture of the poverty and deprivation his grandmother’s family experienced. They were particularly poor. Put it this way, family members were recorded as not being able to read and write in the early C20th. I never came across that for my family for any part of C19th. It gave me a real sense of how privilege (and equally deprivation) goes back over generations – althoughparts of my mother’s family were very poor, I think they could read and write.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. The US Census is now available to do online and they only ask a few questions – Who lives in the house, what type of dwelling is it, and the phone number. Name, sex, nationality, and birth dates of those living there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Just yesterday, I saw a Twitter exchange between someone complaining that they don’t ask about sexuality (or sexual preference if you want to think of it that way) and someone responding that they wouldn’t trust this government–or possibly any other–with a list of who’s gay. The German census question about religion (or nationality, or whatever you want to consider it) was one thing that made it simple for the Nazis to identify Jews. The decisions about what to ask get more complicated the longer you think about it.


  3. Hi Ellen, I have just credited you as my inspiration for my last post ” Ta (or in other words, thanks) on Hope that’s ok with you !
    And thanks for the blog on censuses (bizarre word even though as you say, correct). Wonder what the 2021 census will show?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I suspect that whatever electronic method they use will be a lot more accurate than the paper version. Everyone assumes that the census information is correct, because, of course, everyone always tells the truth. Hmmm.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. There are some here, in the US, that are saying the Trump administration created COVID-19 so as to undercount the illegal immigrant status on the 2020 Census, but it got out of hand. It does make sense now that Mexico has shut its US border to keep Americans from coming into Mexico. I guess their border shutdown ability only works in one direction.

    I live in a small town, we don’t have our own Postal Code so we get one from the closest (not really) large city. When I did the census it asked about my address, giving that large city as where I live. I said no, and put in my real town. A week later I received the invite again, saying if I didn’t fill it out then a Census Taker would come to our house to ask the questions. I’m still debating what to do, if they do come then are they in violation of the shelter-in-place order for that large city? We’re not under it because we are not really there, but that’s were our Postal Code says we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the joy of doing things on the computer. You fit their categories or your fit their categories.

      As for Mexico, ahem, you might say the same thing about the US closing that border in only one direction.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I understand about Mexico, but it’s interesting that prior to this they were saying that they couldn’t control passage through their border to the US. Now that it’s in the other direction it’s possible.

        Personally, I would rather go back to the pre-Clinton era where people just crossed the borders as needed, then went back. Arizona, for example, would have an influx during planting and harvesting season, then people would then go back home during the dry (work wise) periods. I think it helped both economies.

        But, to be totally honest, the US has never been very welcoming to large scale non-Western European immigration. Every country, from Ireland to China (save England, France, Germany), have been persecuted when they come over, or were brought over, en masse.

        Liked by 1 person

        • True: The most recent wave of immigrants in US history (with the exceptions you mention, although I could argue about the Germans) have always been demonized, and the non-Europeans most of all because they’re visible. As for Mexico, though, if US tourists become desperate enough to hire coyotes to smuggle them across, they’ll become hard to control as well. Something about desperation does that to people.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Aha. I’d always suspected the 1970 U.S. census was off by a couple of numbers, and thank you for confirming my suspicions by confessing in print today. Don’t worry, though.
    The 2020 census will be off by WAY more numbers than 2 because the census is being taken online this year. O-n-l-i-n-e. Does anyone see a problem with that, or do we all believe everyone in the US who needs to be counted will have access to a computer or phone with that capability. My suggestion is to call Oprah and/or Ellen and/or both to ask them to start giving more computers away so we can get a better count or we will be missing several hundred million people in the count. But of course if you are trying to dodge allocating funds to the areas with the highest population of the poorest of the poor, the system’s perfect.
    Finally, having filled out the census o-n-l-i-n-e for Pretty and me, I will say that I have never had questions so concerned about what part of Europe my ancestors came over from. I was surprised there wasn’t a question on exactly what boat.
    Smells fishy to me.
    Stay safe.

    Liked by 2 people

      • This census will not ask for citizenship status.
        Question: Is Person 1 of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish heritage?
        Question: What is Person 1″s race? Mark one or more boxes AND Print Origins.
        white, black or African American: American Indian or Alaskan native; Chinese; Filipino; Asian Indian; Vietnamese; Korean; Japanese: other Asian; native Hawaiian; Samoan; Chamorro; other Pacific Islander; other race.
        This census will not ask for citizenship status, right?

        Liked by 1 person

        • Interesting how important we think all that is–and of course because we think it is, it is.

          I wonder, if I was unlucky enough to have to design a census, what I’d think was useful information. I can still remember when they asked about indoor toilets.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. More form creators should ask themselves “Why do we need to know this?” I recently applied to Air Canada for a refund and the website would not let me submit it until I gave myself a courtesy title or honorific. I don’t use one, but I had to choose. I chose Ms, but later I wished I had chosen something else. Captain or Lord, perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I found your post most interesting and thank you for sharing. No more censuses taken after 2021, because they already know everything about us that they need to know? I read or heard somewhere that ‘they ‘ have a virtual ‘you ‘ for everyone on earth and will run games and know exactly how ‘you ‘ will react. ❤️to you

    Liked by 1 person

    • Or how they think you will. I wouldn’t attribute more power to them than they have–especially since they already have a frightening amount. I think what’s new is the idea of drawing all that information together into a public database rather than into however many private ones.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. The last US census had some oddly probing questions. I have vagabonding for some time (14 countries hitchhiked since 2016), so like any good rebel without a cause, I don’t even know if I received a census form. But my ex-wife had questions like “How often do you work at home?” and “How often do you drive more than 5 miles to get to work?” Along with, of course, threatening language about coming to your door if you don’t answer all questions. It seemed a little over the top to me. Btw, Wiliam the Conqueror was wrong. I know quite a few people with chicken feathers. Most often they can be found in national legislatures. Some are probably designing the next census as we speak.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I told the census that my ancestors were Scotch-Irish and English, which I think is true. Some came on the Mayflower (proven) and there is some question as to whether someone on my Mother’s side was there to meet the boat, but we can’t locate proof, and not wanting Dear Leader to call me Pocahontas (Buffalo Road Woman, who helped butcher Custer and Co might be more appropriate) I left that out.
    I also got a letter a week later, as one of your previous commenters noted, but the fine print said , basically, if you already did this, never mind.
    And the door-to-door stuff has been called off – at least til Easter. (ha ha)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good question. My assumption has always been they collect it and it’s there to consult. I remember when they asked whether you had an indoor toilet. (I’m a thousand years old, so I remember stuff like that.) Presumably, some policy initiatives might focus on that and the data would be there.

      Of course, some other policy initiative would focus on city dwellers’ access to fresh air and the data wouldn’t be there, because that’s never been something they asked. It wouldn’t be easily measurable in any case. But a questionnaire like this does bring us unceremoniously into the heart of what does and doesn’t matter to a government, or in other words, what it thinks it needs to know.


  11. This was interesting, but I couldn’t really concentrate because the noisy part of my head was trying to figure out what the plural of censuses should be. Censi? Censae? Censora? Censuss? Or maybe “census” us the plural, and the singular should be censyou, censme, censhe, etc.
    There’s a lot of noise in my head these days. It’s very distracting.

    Liked by 1 person

      • You know, I’d have to go back into the thing, which I don’t think I can, since it was online, but I had that reaction at one point–ooh, that’s a bit much. Funny they didn’t ask about religion and they did ask about where my ancestors came from, which struck me as antediluvian and not particularly useful. It was nicely short though. There was a longer one I had to fill out earlier that took 45 minutes and asked about how many bathrooms I had among other things (1), not to mention income (which they know; I pay taxes) and how many people were staying with me the week before. I don’t mind it much, and I do have an understanding of the data and how it’s cleaned and it’s usefulness broadly in research. Still, there’s this thing called the Paperwork Reduction Act that’s a nightmare for government researchers, but gets cited on all of the most annoying government paperwork I sometimes get. What paperwork reduction??? That would be a whole other comment. All this and I didn’t answer your question.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. I have trouble with my ethnic group. Ninety per cent of my ancestors came from England between 1619 and 1700 and the rest from Wales, Scotland, Ireland , Germany and the Netherlands by 1750, and Native American who came over from Siberia about 12,000 or so years ago. So I say American and leave it there. Or Georgian Southerner, Appalachian, Atlantan, or undecided. Or unknown or undecided.
    Will think it over.

    Have not logged on to see the form yet.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I think it is wanting to know where you ancestors came from. I use and if you get far enough back there are stories that are interesting.

        My eight year old granddaughter asked where our people are from. First I said mostly England. Then later
        said my people were from Georgia and her Nana’s were from Texas, and her other two grandparents were from Minnesota. She laughed at that but that is really all that anyone needs to know. Her dad came South yo escape the cold weather snd his parents moved down after the grandkids were born.

        Liked by 1 person

            • It’s true. We construct our identities in what, in hindsight, I think are odd if understandable ways: This is where I came from, therefore this is who I am. Although I could easily argue that who we are has nothing (and everything) to do with that.

              I can’t seem to stay on one side of the argument for long.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I have spent time today looking at the genealogy records. Only about half my known ancestors came from England. More fromIreland and Wales than I thought. And found one if my third great grandmothers was Jewish. Makes me one thirty second Jewish.
                One grandmother was arrested in Philadelphia for going to a masquerade ball dressed as a male and singing and dancing. She was a quaker, headstrong and independent, it was reported. The owner if the house was arrested for operating an indecent house and holding the party. Arinf 1650 or so.

                Liked by 1 person

  13. Having dabbled in ancestry research, I have found census reports to be helpful and infurirating by turns – depending on the data included and legibility of same.

    I recall one US census – I want to say 1930, but don’t quote me – that asked if the household had a radio. Which makes me ask myself, do households have radios any more?

    Be well Ellen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For a while they asked about TVs, I think (although I can’t swear to that). Then they became so common that they ceased to be a measure of anything. You could have great fun doing a kind of meta-study of what they thought was worth studying at various times and what it tells us about the people doing the studying.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Ellen, I’ve always, since childhood, objected to unnecessarily giving out information. I was probably still in elementary school when I began answering the race question on forms by checking Other and writing in Human. It was not until I was an adult that I realized it actually had some meaning in some situations. On a doctor’s questionnaire, it is relevant because there are many health conditions that are more prevalent in some ethnicities than in others, so it’s helpful in diagnosing. Then I began doing genealogy and saw that censuses (there’s that word again) provide useful and interesting information to future generations and are not made public until after those being counted are dead and gone anyway. It doesn’t offend me to name one of the adults “head of household” or to check a box indicating gender, but questions about some other things are too intrusive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The head-of-household question offended me because it assumes that of two adults, one is the head and the other isn’t. If you’re talking about a parent and children, then no problem. If you’re not, though, I would assume some sort of equality between them. And my tale comes from back in the day, when “head of household” and “man” were synonyms. Red flag. Bull. Or–well, cow. Or, okay, that metaphor broke down pretty quickly but it does lead to your next point, about gender. I’m pretty boringly and predictably gendered, but lately I have people in my life who aren’t, and I although I don’t really understand it I have to take their word for it that this matters, so as soon as we create that box we create all sorts of complications.

      And having said all that, I do appreciate the rich source of data that they create by asking and storing all those questions.


  15. I find the whole idea of cencuses disagreable and time consuming. Whose business is it anyway? I’m supposed to have each great-grandparent from a different country, my mother lived an almost perfectly administration-free life in lots of countries … why should the government bother about it?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely understand the feeling. And on the other hand, I also understand how grateful researchers are to have the information. On the third hand, some of it makes a dangerous collection of information if the government turns toxic.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. This is interesting. Funny as. But interesting. I suppose it’s how strange people like myself and other weird members of my extended family have been able to trace our family line. It’s given us things to be excited about.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Many years ago, when I didn’t have a full-time job, I became a census-taker, which meant walking around a small town and either interviewing people or leaving the “long forms” with them. Did you know that people really don’t like doing the “long form”? I found that out the hard way as well as realizing that my intense fear of dogs was quite debilitating. This led me to get a dog of my own, and now I couldn’t be without one, so I guess the experience had an upside after all!

    Liked by 1 person

    • And somehow there’s always some poor soul who didn’t create the long form, didn’t decide that there would be a long form, and didn’t decide who gets it but who’s always available to hear about it from the people who are pissed off about it.


  18. I just filled out our census this afternoon. It asked for “Race AND origin.” Those ALL CAPS were theirs, too. I think they were making a point, but I’m not sure what it was. They gave suggestions for what they meant: German, Irish, Norwegian, and I don’t remember what others. But not American. I was confused and a little offended. I put American anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I had exactly the same thoughts. I have a few theories about what’s going on. Either companies like and 23&Me made a nice donation to get that question included in the census as a way of stoking curiosity and drumming up some new business. Or maybe it’s a way to entrap future political opponents (a la Elizabeth Warren) into making incorrect statements about their ancestry. Or else it’s part of a long term anti-immigration scheme. All those Germans and Norwegians have been forced to declare their allegiance to their NATO/EU member motherlands and will be deported (unless they vote Republican in November, of course).
        Well, whatever it was, I foiled their plan!

        Liked by 1 person

  19. My husband is still receiving solicitations for money from the Republican Party 14 months after his death. I’m thinking I should probably include him on the census form I’m completing so I don’t confuse them.

    Liked by 1 person

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