Review: The British Census

Ah, the census – a classic game of ancestral hide-and-seek: pages upon pages of names, ages, occupations, places of birth…sometimes illegible, sometimes containing little (or big) white lies to confuse us. Anyone who has researched their family history in the British Isles through the 19th and 20th centuries will know the wonder, joy and frustration of trying to hunt down ancestors within census records.

Playing to this fascination but focusing on the history of our census and how the population responded to it, The British Census by Simon Smith journeys through the recording, counting and assessment of the people of Great Britain (with additional mention of Ireland). Written in an engaging style, this is a light overview of the subject rather than an in-depth treatment and aims to capture two centuries of census history in only 62 pages.

What’s Inside?

Serving as a historical snapshot rather than a how-to guide, the book opens with mention of biblical censuses and a brief look at the (incomplete and largely property-focused) Domesday Survey of 1085-7. Early chapters examine the work of Thomas Malthus and his warnings about a Malthusian catastrophe befalling a population which grew to exceed its supply of resources, part of a wider debate in the years preceding the first census of Great Britain in 1801. Some discussion is given over to alternative forms of (non-census) population recording, including parish registers of baptisms, marriages and burials which date from the 16th century, and the civil registration of births, marriages and deaths established in the 19th century.

These other records having set the scene, we progress to the census proper, with chapters on John Rickman and those early “headcount” censuses of England, Wales and Scotland from 1801-31*. From this we move on to the modern censuses of the Victorian era, capturing the social shifts that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, and seeing the involvement of English medical statistician William Farr during the mid-1800s, at a time when the state of public health in urban areas was a growing concern. Moving into the 20th century, we witness the collision of the 1911 census with the women’s suffrage movement; the evolution of the census through both World Wars; and the reshaping of society in post-war Britain. Later chapters take us right up to modern day, discussing the changing role of the enumerator once forms could be returned by post and ultimately transitioning to the current model where the majority of forms are completed online.

The 62 pages of The British Census are packed with attractive illustrations – many of them in colour – including portraits of key figures, contemporary engravings and line-drawings from newspapers, and photographs depicting the various social changes which the census attempted to capture and respond to.

When working with census returns, our focus can be drawn so strongly to individual entries that there can be a disconnect with the later, larger-scale processes which transformed the contents of household returns or enumerators’ books into regional or national statistics. The illustrations are of great help here. Photographs of census clerks and Hollerith tabulating machines from the early 20th century demonstrate the physical processes involved and bring the subject to life. I appreciated one particular image of page from a 1901 enumerator’s book: in full colour, the clerks’ annotations stand out clearly, helping readers to understand the marks on these pages as the work of multiple people from different stages of the census process – an aspect which can be trickier to appreciate from the grainy greyscale images most of us are used to accessing online.

Satirical illustrations from Victorian-era newspapers add humour and provide an intriguing insight into some of the social attitudes to the census – whether this involved women hacking years off their age on the household return, enumerators being mistaken for tax collectors, or having to put up with jeers and snipes in the course of his (or indeed her, as of 1891) duties. One particular series of census cartoons from the London Illustrated News (for which see the example below) was entirely new to me, so this was a treat.

“The Enumerator Endures Some Chaff.” Excerpt from article “The Increase of Population” in the Illustrated London News, Saturday 11th April, 1891, via the British Newspaper Archive at FindMyPast.


It is a shame that, despite its impressive aesthetics, The British Census is troubled by a series of errors, particularly through its frequent disregard for the distinct identities of the nations of the British Isles as regards census administration. Although some sections of the book briefly discuss census-taking in Scotland or Ireland and the language questions which were asked there, an understanding of how and when these censuses operated as distinct from their England & Wales counterpart is almost completely lacking.

Genealogical research demands a sound understanding of location. Identifying where an event happened and how this relates to the administration and archiving of surviving records is vital. If the book’s title refers to Great Britain (i.e. England, Wales and Scotland), consistent with the wording of the Population Act of 1800, then the mention of Ireland within the text is puzzling; I can only presume it refers to the British Isles, thus including Ireland – however, Irish readers may feel justly annoyed at being included in a book about the “British” census at all. Unfortunately this distinction lacks clarity from the very start, and the text goes on to conflate “British” with “English” for much of the time.

Scotland, for instance, has had its own Registrar-General since William Pitt-Dundas was appointed to the position in 1854, and a Scottish-administered census process since 1861, owing to the Census (Scotland) Act of 1860. The British Census makes no mention of this. All references to a Registrar-General are in fact to the England & Wales post-holders, though this is not made clear in the text and risks confusing readers. Furthermore, a later caption of the UK National Archives at Kew proclaims that this is “where British census records are now stored.” Researchers who consult Scottish census returns on ScotlandsPeople – delivered by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, which holds these records – should feel aggrieved about this erasure.

Similarly, Somerset House – the former home of English and Welsh civil registration records – is mentioned in connection with the onset of birth, marriage and death registration from 1837. There is no acknowledgement that this didn’t apply to Scotland, whose civil registration records actually date from 1855 and are stored at New Register House in Edinburgh, or to Ireland, where full registration commenced in 1864 (following the registration of non-Catholic marriages from 1845) and whose records are held by the Irish GRO in Roscommon, RoI, and GRONI at Colby House, Belfast, NI. Readers looking to learn about population recording across the British Isles will come away with a completely inaccurate idea of how and where the various national systems operated.

Some Final Thoughts…

Some of the anecdotes and satirical cartoons in The British Census really made me smile. They’re great at getting modern readers to connect with contemporary attitudes to census-taking, and to appreciate social stereotypes of the Victorian era, such as the hen-pecked husband married to a scold, or the vain woman lying about her age. It’s a bold move to cover two centuries of census history in such a compact volume, and the range of subjects which this title touches upon will hopefully give readers plenty to think about.

It is such a shame that, due to its factual faults and errors of omission, I’m unable to recommend The British Census as a suitable study text for learning about the census. I worry that readers unfamiliar with the distinct histories of population recording in Scotland, Ireland and England & Wales will end up entirely misinformed. Each country of the British Isles has a rich history and a unique character; appreciating how these have intersected and intertwined through the ages is key to interpreting their records correctly – and to seeking them in the correct archive. When we ignore these distinctions or conflate “British” with “English”, we do all our countries – and our history – a disservice.

The British Census is not without its merits though, and if you already have a solid knowledge of the censuses of England & Wales, Scotland and Ireland and how they have evolved over time, you may enjoy its lively anecdotes and attractive illustrations, which cast a light on cultural gems from the archives and raise a smile.

The British Census by Simon Smith is published by Shire Library (£8.99) and is scheduled for U.K. release on Thursday 27th May 2021.

PLEASE NOTE: As for all content on The Parchment Rustler, this is an independent and unpaid review. Shire Publications provided a free advance copy of The British Census for the sole purpose of enabling the review to be completed prior to the title’s official launch.


* Ireland’s censuses followed a different pattern during these early years and no censuses took place there in 1801 or 1811. Ireland, having attempted a separate count over 1813-15 (which was ultimately abandoned), was enumerated alongside the other nations from 1821, although this isn’t mentioned in the text (despite Ireland being discussed elsewhere in the book).

2 thoughts on “Review: The British Census

  1. The National Archives is not and never has been the UK National Archives, it is the National Archive of the UK Government. Staff at the time of the change of name were rightly unhappy that the name was changed from the Public Record Office.

    1. Indeed so – and a naming convention which I’m very much aware of, given that I’ve served on TNA’s user advisory committee for the past few years! Due to the international readership of this blog, some disambiguation is required – as I’m sure you’re aware, it does no good to confuse TNA with other national bodies elsewhere, such as the National Archives of the USA. The need to disambiguate whilst remaining concise forces one’s hand; whilst the moniker “UK National Archives” is not its official name, it is entirely consistent with TNA’s own naming approach in social media domains where a full title cannot be included.

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