By Abigail Hartley, Searchroom Archivist
The easy answer to ‘When was the first census held?’ in the British Isles can be as simple an answer as 1801. Or 1841. Or 1086. Or Roman times if you really want to stretch the purpose and definition of a census.
So, let’s define a census. For our purposes, it is a survey of a population carried out by the governing body of said population. But a survey to what end? For the Romans, it was to keep track of who was suitable for potential military service. For William the Conqueror, it was to learn about taxable estates. For cleric and economist Thomas Malthus, it was so the government could better understand the people they supposedly represented.
In his 1798 work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus listed twelve reasons why a census was to the benefit of the government and the population it represented. These included arguments towards – once again – the number of men who were potential candidates for the militia, as well as ideas towards how many mouths there were to feed, and how many people were available for industrious work. The population, which had been steady at around six million throughout the first half of the eighteenth century, had grown to ten million by the turn of the century. Malthus’ arguments were often used in parliamentary debates, and sure enough, in 1801, the ‘first’ British census was held.
The first censuses
The 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses looked very different to the ones you find on sites like Find My Past or Ancestry. These instead operated more like headcounts. Overseers of the poor visited households and then submitted the statistics, which were then compiled. The original forms were often destroyed. Some forms survive in local record offices, but here at WSRO there is sadly very little. Occasionally, some parish registers will include the census returns in their pages. For example, Par 42/1/1/4, St Pancras’s register for baptisms and burials between 1781 and 1812, includes a page of returns for the 1801 census. Similar items can be found on our online catalogue for the 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses.
The ‘modern’ censuses
1841 is cited as the first modern census. As the first to document information about every member of the household, as well as be administered centrally (and not devolved to the local level), the 1841 edition provided the backbone of future censuses, which would be further refined as the decades passed. From 1801 to 1841, the population had grown by another eight million. As a result, more detailed information was required.
Later censuses would specify the exact ages of the household members, their relationship to each other, and a more exact location of birth or origin. By 1921, the census included questions about a person’s place of work, and whether a person was married, single, widowed or, new to the list, divorced and (thanks to the First World War) orphaned. The population of Great Britain now stood at around forty million.
The Boxall family of West Dean
We looked at one large West Sussex family to show these changes. James and Caroline Boxall were the heads of a large and well-known West Dean household, having at least twelve (or thirteen, we’ll come back to this) children between 1877 and 1897.
Married at ages twenty-three and nineteen in April 1876, Caroline became pregnant four months into the marriage, and would have their first child, Lillian Mary in 1877. There were many more to come. Alice Ruth, Caroline Emily, Lawrence James, Leonard Arthur, Florence Mabel, Catherine May, twins William and Ethel, Henry George, Beatrice (Bessie) Agnes, Dorothy Violet, and Walter Henry. Maybe.
By looking at the 1911 census, you will see that Caroline notes that she had thirteen children, four of whom died. If we then check the burial registers for West Dean, we see that baby Caroline, Ethel, Henry and Bessie died in infancy, all of them less than a month old. This is important to remember, as sometimes families can expand and contract in between the decades, so be aware you may be missing some family members as you go through the censuses.
If we go back ten years to the 1901 census, an interesting discrepancy emerges. The youngest son, Walter Henry, listed as one of Caroline’s thirteen children (and only a year young than the next youngest Dorothy) in 1911, is instead listed as a grandson. What’s more, his birthplace is totally different from the stationary Boxall family – Monmouthshire! Doing a bit of online searching, his Welsh baptism record shows his mother was Alice Ruth, the second daughter of James and Caroline. No father was recorded. By 1901, Alice was married to a (new?) man and not living with her parents or Walter. It is possible that she gave her illegitimate son to her parents, who – considering the lack of age gap between Walter and the next youngest Dorothy – decided to adopt him in time for the 1911 census. This was a fairly common practice at the time.
The 1921 census
The 1921 census has been released on Find My Past this year in early January, first under a pay-to-access scheme on personal accounts only. It will eventually be included as part of the institution and library subscriptions later in the year, but for now, the WSRO subscription does not include access to the census for its visitors or staff.
It will be the last publicly accessible census for some time. The 1921 census was followed by another in 1931. However, during World War Two, a fire burned the English and Welsh papers, and indeed the war also stopped a 1941 census from being taken. This means, due to the 100-year closures required, the next full census to be available to the public will be the 1951 census in 2052. Luckily, the 1939 Register, created as part of the 1939 National Registration Act, helps plug the gap in what would be a gaping hole in the demographic and genealogical history of the United Kingdom. This is currently viewable on Find My Past, with some entries blanked out for those who are still alive as of 2022.
To conclude, what happened to James and Caroline? Using a personal account, we looked them up on Find My Past on the 1921 census. With all their children grown up and left home, the couple, now in their 60s, moved in with their eldest son Lawrence, who had just been discharged from the army after fifteen years of service. With the three of them cohabiting, James is still noted as working, supported by his son. James would pass away at the age of 85 in 1938; Caroline following in 1943. They certainly lived a full life, and they are a fantastic example of how the census forms the backbone of genealogical, and indeed social, history.