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The census dates back to the Babylonian Empire of 4000BC, when information was recorded on clay tiles and used to determine how much food was needed to feed the population.

The Egyptians used a sensus to assess the workforce required to build the pyramids; a Chinese Han Dynasty census of 2AD recorded a population of 58 million; and it was a Roman census that required Mary and Joseph to return to Bethlehem to be counted.

In the UK, the Census did not catch on for a while.  The Domesday Book of 1086 was the first attempt , but its primary function was to determine people’s wealth, so they could be taxed on it.  As such it hardly engaged general enthusiasm.

In 1279, Edward 1st commissioned the Hundred Rolls to record landholding in England, but nothing was ever done with the information.  Only regional county fragments survive as invaluable source for historians, listing not just numbers of people (Like Domesday) but their names, obligations and status (Freemen, cottars, villeins or serfs).  

In the 16th and 17the centuries the church kept records of families in each diocese but Britain was very reluctant to adopt a nationwide census - which was opposed on theological, security and ‘mind your own business’ grounds - until necessity intervened.  

By the late 18th century, worry about the population outstripping resources  and lack of empirical evidence about its size led to a realisation that better information was needed if the infrastructure of the country were to support its people.  

The first official census took place in 1801 and has occurred every 10 years since except 1941, when war intervened.  The modern census dates from 1841 , when a centralised process and format was introduced.

It is a serious undertaking and census staff go to great lengths to ensure as many people as possible complete it.  Census forms have even been supplied to the mountain hut on Ben Nevis just in case anyone was overnighting there!  Welsh language forms were introduced in 1841 and Yiddish in 1901 - all steps to improve the quality of the information that reveals so much about the nation.

The first census of 1801 recorded a population of 9 million.  By 1821, information on age was introduced - eagerly sought by the growing number of friendly societies requiring accurate life tables for their insurance activities, Then half the population, as opposed to about a quarter today, was under 20.  

By 1831 , the population had risen to 16.5 million, 16% of whom lived in urban areas.  In 1991, 90% of the UK’s 57 million lived in towns.  

In 1841, the most common occupation was domestic servant and nearly 250,000 people were employed in  the cotton industry.  In 1861, a Preston enumerator (of information collector) was shocked by the poverty in his area and by “the serious insufficiency of conveniences for the easement of nature”.

Noticeable from the 1851 census was the link between employment and health.  Early mortality was noted among tailors who “die in considerable numbers at younger ages” (25-45) and miners “who die in undue proportions''.  It was also observed that “the poor Law apparently affords inadequate relief to the worn out workman”.

Among the weighty compilation of collective information, vignettes of individuals also emerge.  In 1881, a disaffected female listed her status as “maid of allwork” and occupation as “slave”.  In 1911, Peter Tabby was recorded with the occupation “mouser” and nationality as “Persian”.  The enumerator’s terse comment in the margin reads “this is a cat”!

Also in 1911, the suffragette Emily davidson hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons - the census duly recorded her as being a resident there.

In 1951, presensus publicity urged all women to tell the truth about their age (there was evidence that previously those who had married very young had added to their age, while many others had subtracted).  At this, agony aunts received flurries of letters from those concerned that their friends and neighbours might discover the truth.

The Cornhill Magazine of 1871 noted:  “there is no book of reference to which statesmen, philanthropists and others who decide to ameliorate the conditions of the masses are more often compelled to turn for guidance and enlightenment than to that in which the results of the last census are set forth”.

The core utility of the census, noted by the Cornhill Magazine, remains unchanged.  The information collected helps to decide where to spend public money and how to plan for public services.

The questions asked reflect this.  So while the majority of the information remains broadly the same, issues of the moment are also addressed.  Thus in 1991, participants were asked about their ethnicity for the first time, while in 2021 a question about previous military service was introduced, to establish the size and needs of veterans’ community (following lobbying from the Royal British Legion).

This year has also been the first time census primarily completed online, although automation has been an ongoing trend.  In the early days, an army o f scribes collected the information; in 1911, punch cards were introduced to encode and sort the data; and in 1961, computers were used for collation.

More than 200 years of detailed census information tells the social story of the country in a way no other method can match - as anyone who has used the census to trace their family history can attest.

Meanwhile , it remains an indispensable tool for predicting the future needs for society.


Top - A census records office, 1861.

Fore information on using the census for personal research see

With thanks to the Editor of the Pennant for permission to reproduce this article.

British_library-The Book of Days. A miscellany of popular antiquties, in connection with t


Article written by Linda Upham

A simple question for us but it was not always the case….our date today depends on a number of historical happenstances and quirky mathematicians.  Compiling the calendar is complicated and at times illogical, and very dependent on knowledge of our solar system.

Currently, we use the Gregorian calendar for our dates, and that is named after Pope Gregory XIII who in 1582, reordered the calendar to make Easter a Spring festival by aligning it with the traditional way of calculating it, ie the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after March 21 – the Spring Equinox. Using the Julian calendar, Easter was moving towards summer and would eventually move on into harvest time. Autumn and even Christmas Day!

So, what was the problem?

The Earth’s solar year is about 26 seconds longer than the man-made calendar year.  The Julian calendar had been in operation since 46 BC and this had also been an attempt to reconcile the solar and man made calendar. 

Since 450 BC, the Romans had a 4 year cycle of 3 normal years and one leap year, and dated their year from 1 January to 31 December, so that they could elect their consuls for a set period a year at a time. Each year was 355 days. This was not in synchronisation with Earth time.  Therefore, consuls and priests also dictated how many extra days were added to individual months during the year and when the so called extra intercalary month of 22/23 days was inserted between two of the months, usually February and March, or as happened in times of war, not at all in order to keep the Earth and man made time together. Festival days were irregular and often adrift of the season they celebrated. This was no good at all for the bureaucracy of an Empire so Julius Caesar set about reforming it

Julius added 10 extra days to his calendar over several of the months (2 for January, August and December, and 1 to April, June, September and November), plus one extra day every leap year making a year 365/6 days long.  

(You probably remember the rhyme – 30 days hath September...well, thanks to Julius Caesar for that although I like the parody version of ’30 days has September, All the rest I can’t remember’).

However, although it regulated the days of the month, and months of the year, it now meant that the length of the Earth’s year was less than the human calendar as it takes the Earth more than 365 days, but less than 366 days to go around the sun. A discrepancy of 6 hours a year soon adds up over the centuries and Pope Gregory decided to fix it.

What did Gregory do in an attempt to reconcile the solar and man calendars?  He kept the old Julian 365/366 days in a year and the same days of each month but decreed that in that September the 14th should follow the 2nd – missing out the accumulated 10 days.  This lost 10 days was the subject of several riots in 1752 in England, under the slogan “Give us back our Eleven days“ because the disparity had grown by one more day by then.

Not every-one thought this was bad – Benjamin Franklin wrote “It is pleasant for an old man to go to bed on September 2 and not have to get up until September 14.”!!!!

So, the ten days were eradicated, and every 4th year was decreed a leap year when one extra day would be added to February, except for centennial years like 1900 if they were not divisible by 400.  I hope you are following this.

However, the new Gregorian calendar was only applied in Roman Catholic countries (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, most of France)

Many Protestant countries thought that this Gregorian calendar was a sneaky Catholic plot of some kind and refused to deviate from the Julian calendar.  The problem is that the Julian calendar gains one day on the solar year every 128 human years; this led to further complications especially as the boundaries of the world narrowed with the development of transport and trading routes. Even then the adoption was piecemeal – for example, Germany in 1700, England in 1752, 1918 in Russia, 1923 in Greece and 1926/7 in Turkey, and for Saudia Arabia it was 2016.

Even now, the Russian, Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches date their liturgical calendar, saints’ days etc to the Julian version so Christmas Day for them is 6 January, and as the difference in 2100 will be 14 days, Christmas Day this year will be 7 January.

Two more oddities about all this re-arranging of the calendar – firstly, in England, New Years’ Day was 24/25 September under the Anglo Saxons, then the 1 January from 1087 to 1155, then back to 25 March between 1155 and 1751, then back to 1 January from 1752 -all because of the solar year discrepancy that Gregory hoped to eradicate.

Secondly, when the Gregorian calendar was adopted, the City of London refused to accept the change and as a result we still date our tax year from April 5th.

Oh yes, and the Gregorian calendar is not perfect – it still overshoots by a small margin every year, so if you are still her in 4909 be aware that our calendar year will be another full day ahead of the solar year.

Image: British Library digitised image from page 245 of "The Book of Days. A miscellany of popular antiquties, in connection with the calendar ... Edited by R. Chambers"



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