Today is census day in Britain. Well, most of Britain. Scotland gets a year’s grace because of Covid but for residents in England Wales and Northern Ireland today is the day we count heads. It is interesting to look back at the very first census, and to see the things that our rulers were interested in finding out about us.
A census has been held every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 (during the last War).
A Bill proposing a head-count had been drafted way back in 1753. The intention back then was to register the “total number of marriages, births, and deaths, and also of the total number of the poor receiving alms from every Parish and Extra-parochial Place in Great Britain”.
It was introduced by Thomas Potter, the MP for St Germans in Cornwall and it elicited considerable opposition – it would cost too much, it wasn’t feasible and it could give our enemies information which could be damaging to us by exposing numerical weaknesses.
The MP for York, a Mr. Thornton, went so far as to say that he did not believe: “that there was any set of men, or, indeed, any individual of the human species so presumptuous and so abandoned as to make the proposal we have just heard. …. I hold this project to be totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty …. The new Bill will direct the imposition of new taxes, and, indeed, the addition of a very few words will make it the most effectual engine of rapacity and oppression that was ever used against an injured people…..Moreover, an annual register of our people will acquaint our enemies abroad with our weakness.”
Nevertheless, the Bill passed its first hurdle but there was insufficient time for it to complete all its Readings. The Bill lapsed and the idea was dropped for nearly half a century until a statistician named John Rickman appeared on the scene and put it back on the agenda.
By the time Britain was about to get embroiled in a war with France under Napoleon, no-one could be sure whether the population was growing or shrinking. The government did not know where its resources were most needed, and there was a sneaking fear that the number of men available for conscription, in the event of war with France, might be less than that of our enemy. Faced with the vague assumption that the population of the country was somewhere between nine million and eleven million persons, Rickman urged Parliament to commission a census in accordance with the following principles:
“1. The intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy;
2. An industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known;
3. The number of men who were required for conscription to the militia in different areas should reflect the area’s population;
4. There were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen;
5. The need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed;
6. A census would indicate the Government’s intention to promote the public Good; and
7. The life insurance industry would be stimulated by the results”.
Rickman was a successful lobbyist. He was appointed as Private Secretary to Charles Abbot (later Lord Colchester), the MP for Helston in Cornwall. In 1800 Abbot introduced a Population Bill ‘for taking an Account of the Population of Great Britain, and of the Increase or Diminution thereof’. It was passed and the Act came into force on the last day of December 1800. The first census was held just three months later – a remarkable tribute to the administrative skills and endeavours of John Rickman. He not only laid down the procedures, selected the questions, appointed the enumerators and received the results; he also analysed those results and was able to present the findings to Parliament by the end of 1801 – just nine months after the census was carried out.
Rickman’s career included twelve years as the Speaker’s Secretary and twenty-six years as Clerk Assistant at the Table of the House of Commons. During his tenure he radically overhauled the rules and arrangements for recording and publishing parliamentary proceedings. These rules hadn’t changed since the 1680s. He also personally supervised the population returns for four successive decades. His work was recognized in 1815 when he became a Fellow of the Royal Society and international recognition came in 1833 when he was awarded honorary membership of the Société Française de Statistique Universelle. Somehow, in among all his work on the census, he acted from 1803 as secretary to the commissions for making roads and bridges in Scotland, and for constructing the Caledonian canal, and in 1823 was nominated to a commission for building churches in the highlands and islands of Scotland.
He was a close friend of Thomas Telford, adding extensive notes to an autobiography of the great engineer which Rickman published in 1838, some years after Telford had died. He also acted as Telford’s executor. A man described as being so badly dressed that he could easily be mistaken for a tramp, Rickman died in August 1840 and is buried at St Margaret’s, Westminster.
As for the census returns which Rickman masterminded, the first three census results give Britain a population of just below eleven million in 1801, rising by 15% to nearly 12,600,000 in 1811. Within ten years it had gone up to 14,481,139. Within another ten years it had risen to 16,643,028, an increase which hints at the social changes and stresses which affected the Victorian era. The faster the rate that the population grew, the poorer the living accommodation became and in the 1840s it was calculated that Liverpool had a population of about 40,000 living in cellars, with an average of 5 or 6 persons in each cellar. Higher population densities meant higher death rates and shorter life expectancy.
Britain was a country in transition: in 1831 28% of the population was employed in agriculture and 50% lived in rural conditions. A quarter of the population lived in towns of over 20,000 persons. Within another twenty years urbanisation had tilted dramatically and by 1851 the combined population of the British Isles (including Wales, Scotland and Ireland) was a staggering 27 million. London alone had grown in size from around 1.5 million to 2.5 million people in just forty years.
[This article is an extract taken from a rather longer piece published in the March/April edition of the publication Jane Austen’s Regency World, available via firstname.lastname@example.org]