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The story behind the census

The story behind the census

The census is a crucial component of modern-day governance, but the story of how it came to be is often a lost tale. In this article, we delve into the birth of it all 

It was Napoleon who pushed Parliament into the first census. The concept had been around since Roman times, but it took the fear of French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars to make it happen. But the unsung heroes of the censuses were the army of men who gathered the mountain of information.

The birth of the census

In 1800, Parliament decided it needed to know how many men could be called on to defend the country against the French camped just across the Channel—and also how many aliens were living here. Hence, the first official census was taken on March 10, 1801.

As we scour the records now for information about our past, though, we give little thought to the people who gathered all the detail. The census takers—known as enumerators—bore the onerous task of visiting every home in their district on a particular night and recording the occupants’ details—and they did it every ten years.

How the enumerators’ task grew

Initially, from 1801 to 1831, all the enumerator did was record the size of the population of his local parish based on the number of people living in each house, the numerical breakdown of their occupations, how many houses were occupied and the total number of baptisms, marriages and burials in the parish. 

The enumerator was usually chosen because he had some standing in the community, perhaps having served on the parish council or undertaken the role of an assessor of local rates. Because the enumerator was part of the community, he would have known much about the neighbours he was counting, and they would have trusted him to come into their homes to share a light refreshment

"The enumerator was usually chosen because he had some standing in the community"

Some enumerators took their jobs so seriously that they made personal notes as they went around. Richard Stopher, the 1831 enumerator for Saxmundham, Suffolk and a keen local historian, added biographical notes to householders' names as he travelled throughout the parish. 

It was men like him, gathering personal data as well as basic statistical information, who helped to change the way the census was perceived and brought about new categories of information, such as the names, ages, occupations and birthplaces of each occupant, eventually introduced in the 1841 census. This census was also the first to use forms filled in by the head of the household, with the help of the enumerator, if necessary. That very year, 35,000 enumerators recorded the names and biographical data of nearly 16 million people.

More trouble than it’s worth

The men behind the census - woman surveying another women for census Credit: JackF

Unlike Richard Stopher, not all census takers knew their community. Some enumerators in the large towns and cities encountered suspicion from householders who resented the intrusion, or they were simply not taken seriously. 

One householder listed “Dick the Canary” as a member of his household. Sometimes enumerators described the difficulties and frustrations they had encountered at the end of their written returns. In one such record for Isleworth, Middlesex, the enumerator, Mr Abott, wrote, “This is the first and last of W. Abott’s taking the census of England and Wales unless the price goes up.” 

It seems the job was not worth the 2s 6d (approximately £8.48 in 2017) for every 100 persons counted, and it was this discouragingly low pay that led to the recruitment of women enumerators from 1891.

Famous names at home

Despite the difficulties of the job, enumerators could always claim to have met renowned people, even if they were little known at the time. In 1901, for instance, Charlie Chaplin was recorded as a 12-year-old “music hall artiste” in south London, at 94 Ferndale Road, Lambeth. 

As they carried out their jobs, enumerators also encountered every walk of life; one day, they could be recording prostitutes and beggars in a slum, and the next, royalty in their palaces. Despite being the ruler of the British Empire, Queen Victoria is recorded on the 1851 census simply as “The Queen”, with her husband Prince Albert listed as “Head of Household”.

"Enumerators encountered every walk of life—one day recording prostitutes and beggars in a slum, the next royalty in their palaces"

Other enumerators would have had the pleasure of meeting such notables as Florence Nightingale (1861), H.G. Wells (1891), and W.G. Grace and Claude Monet (1901).

There’s no accounting for people

The men behind the census - Hand of a man answering answering a census questionnaireCredit: jcamilobernal

Census gathering may have been streamlined over the years, but the task of the enumerator was no less problematic. During the foot-and-mouth crisis in 2001, enumerators in Scotland were not allowed past security cordons for fear of spreading the disease through their door-to-door visits. And despite improvements in technology, and changing ways in which the data is collected, the census still causes controversy. 

Also in 2001, an online campaign ensured that 390,000 people stated their religion as “Jedi Knight”. As a result, official reports into the state of the UK were forced to include Jedi on the list of practising religions.

"Despite improvements in technology, and changing ways in which the data is collected, the census still causes controversy"

Census data is used to make decisions when it comes to public policy, resource allocation, and future planning, yet it is safe to say that it is not without its flaws that need to be improved to better reflect the needs and conditions of its people.

Banner photo: hapabapa

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