Census - the origins

The 1800 Population Act initiated the holding of decennial (ten year) censuses which increased in sophistication and amount of information obtained as they developed throughout the 19th century.

However, censuses were being taken long before this, and Enumerations were even more common. Governments have long been interested in surveying their resources in land goods or people.

One of the earliest censuses must be that of the Children of Israel in 1200BC. There is also evidence of the Romans conducting censuses every 5 /14 years; sadly, however, these rarely contained lists of names.

The Domesday Book and beyond

The earliest of the surviving British population listings must be the Domesday Book, compiled between 1086 and about 1088. The exact purpose of the survey is unclear, but it was probably intended to be the basis for taxation.

The Book compares landholding and possessions under Edward the Confessor (died 1065), with the situation in 1086 under William the Conqueror.

Parts of the country were not surveyed, especially in the far north, where William the Conqueror"s authority was weak, and the returns for some large towns, including London and Winchester, were not written up into the final version.

Following the Domesday Book, many lists were made throughout the British Isles. Both the Church and the State – which at certain times were inseparable – conducted surveys of the people, mainly for raising revenue particularly in time of war or unrest.

These were mostly organised locally, covering a specific area and, where surviving, will mostly be found amongst the Quarter Sessions records in local archives and record offices.

Population problem

However, by the 1790s things began to change. Britain was still in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, which had begun in the 1740s - the numerous inventions and techniques permanently transforming the British Isles. Britain had been at war with France for most of the 1790s, creating a real need to know exactly how many eligible fighting men there were.

It was also a time of bad harvests and food shortages. In 1798 things came to a head when Thomas Malthus published his essay on the "Principle of Population". It caused great concern by suggesting that population growth would soon outstrip supplies of food and other resources, ‘causing Britain to be hit by disease, famine and other disasters".

Frightened by this alarmist view of the future, Parliament passed the Census Act in 1800 and the first full official census in England and Wales was taken on 10 March 1801.

Information was collected from every household by the Overseers of the Poor; they were aided by constables, tithingmen, headboroughs and other officers of the peace. This first official head count revealed Britain's population to be nine million.

An army of clerks using only pens and paper processed information about every person in the land. Technology did not reach the census until 1911 when punch cards and mechanical sorting were introduced. Computers were first used in 1961 and now play an essential role.

The census as we know it

The 1841 census is regarded as the first modern census, when the first Registrar General of England and Wales was made responsible for organising the count.

The task of counting was passed to local officers of the newly created registration service. This is the earliest census that has survived in its entirety: few of the 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses have survived the ravages of time.

1841 was the first time that the head of each household was given a form to fill in on behalf of everyone in the dwelling on a set day. This system still forms the basis of the method used today.

Since 1801 there has been a census every 10 years except for 1941, during the Second World War. Although the basic principle remains unchanged, new questions have been added whilst some have been removed. Until 1911 the Government needed to introduce a new Census Act for every census held.

Since the passage of the 1920 Census Act the law has supported census taking in Great Britain, making it possible for the Government to hold a census at any time.

Every household must now return a completed form by law. Failure to make a completed return or giving false information is now an offence, and attracted a fine of up to £1,000 by the time of the 2001 census.

The law protects the confidentiality of the census. The 1920 Census Act prohibited the unlawful disclosure of any information given in the census, determining that the information collected would only be used to produce statistics, and no information would be released which allowed the identification of any individual or household.

The census information is not available to be viewed by the public for 100 years; however, the 1911 census was released online three years early, except for some potentially sensitive information that was redacted until 2012. This information (any details of your family's health and conditions that your ancestors recorded in the 'infirmity' column of the census return) is now available to view on findmypast

Past census returns - years and dates

A census of the population of England, Wales, Scotland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles has been taken every 10 years since 1801, except in 1941 during the Second World War.

As census returns are subject to public closure for 100 years because of the potentially sensitive personal information they contain, the English, Welsh and Scottish census returns that are currently available to the public are as follows:

1841 - taken on 6 June
1851 - taken on 30 March
1861 - taken on 7 April
1871 - taken on 2 April
1881 - taken on 3 April
1891 - taken on 5 April
1901 - taken on 31 March
1911 - taken on 2 April

Whilst the census returns for 1801, 1811, 1821 and 1831 were not preserved in their complete form, there are some areas where returns for these years have been found and some survive in local authority libraries and archives.

1801 - taken on 10 March
1811 - taken on 27 May
1821 - taken on 28 May
1831 - taken on 30 May

Why not search for your ancestors in the censuses?

1841 Census

The World in 1841


•President Harrison becomes first American President to die in office.
•The Canadas are merged into the Province of Canada.
•Punch Magazine launched


•The census taken on the night of 6 June 1841 gave the total population as 18,553,124.


•Charles Dickens – Barnaby Rudge
•Ralph Waldo Emerson – Essays
Political and military

•United Kingdom occupies Hong Kong.
•United Kingdom annexes Sarawak from Brunei
•First Opium War in progress

Search for your ancestors in the 1841 census

1851 Census


• Queen Victoria, the reigning monarch, opens the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace. It runs from 1 May until 18 October.
•In October, the Reuters news service is founded.
•The first international chess tournament is held in London on 26 May.
•American gambler, gunfighter and friend of famous lawman Wyatt Earp, John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday is born on 14 August.


•The 1851 census was taken on 30 March 1851 and gave the population as 20,997,889.

The Arts

•Author Mary Shelley dies on 1 February.
•Artist J M W Turner dies on 19 December.
•Writer Joanna Baillie is born on 23 February.

Political and Military

•John Russell (Liberal) is British Prime Minister.
•Lord Palmerston is sacked as Foreign Secretary for sending Napoleon III a congratulatory telegram on his coup d"état, by which he’d seized dictatorial powers over France.
•Frenchman Ferdinand Foch, supreme commander of the allied armies in the Great War, is born.

Search for your ancestors in the 1851 census

1861 Census


•Daily weather forecasts began on 1 January.
•The First horse-drawn trams appeared on the streets of London.
•The opening of the Post Office Savings Bank saw within its first year 180,000 investors, who between them deposited nearly £2,000,000.


•The census taken on the night of 7 April gave the total population as 23,085,579. To put this in perspective the population of Russia was 76 million, USA 32 million and Italy 25 million.


•Queen Victoria had been on the throne since 1837, with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, as her husband and Prince Consort. Victoria was devastated when on 14 December Prince Albert died at Windsor Castle. The cause of Prince Albert"s death was thought to be due to typhoid, caused by contaminated water and lack of proper sewage disposal.
•Thomas Crapper, manufacturer, supplier and installer of sanitary goods and improver and promoter of the "Water Waste Preventer" founded the firm of Thomas Crapper & Co. in 1861.


•Mrs Beeton"s Book of Household Management.
•Charles Dickens - Great Expectations.
•The first issue of the Vatican"s newspaper L"Osservatore Romano was published.

Political and military

•William Ewart Gladstone was Chancellor of the Exchequer and introduced a clever new practice in the way laws dealing with financial practice were passed by Parliament, combining them all into one large bill for the 1861 budget.
•Earl Haig, Commander in chief of the British forces in France during most of the First World War, was born in Edinburgh.
•James Buchanan was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln.
•Tsar Alexander II of Russia initiated sweeping social reforms, the most historically important of which was the Emancipation of the Serfs Act, 1861.

Why not search for your ancestors in the 1861 census?

1871 Census


•German Empire created – Wilhelm I of Germany is first Emperor of Germany.
•Paris Commune established, later crushed by Third Republic.
•Royal Albert Hall opened.


•The census taken on the night of 2 April 1871 gave the total population as 26,072,036.


•George Eliot – Middlemarch
•Lewis Carroll – Through the looking glass
•Marcel Proust is born

Political and Military

•Trade Unions legalised in the UK
•Religious tests removed for Oxford and Cambridge Universities

Search for your ancestors in the 1871 census

1881 Census


•Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell form the Oriental Telephone Company.
•The Savoy Theatre opens
•Alexander Fleming born


•The 1881 census was taken on the night of 3 April 1881 and gave the total population as 29,707,207.


•P.G. Wodehouse is born
•Fyodor Dostoevsky dies
•Henry James – The Portrait of a Lady is published

Political and Military

•Benjamin Disraeli dies
•The First Boer War is ended by the signing of the Pretoria Convention
•Charles Stewart Parnell imprisoned

View free transcriptions in the 1881 census

1891 Census


•New Scotland Yard becomes the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police
•Radio patented by Thomas Edison
•Building of the Trans-Siberian Railway is started


•The census taken on the night of 5 April 1891 gave the total population as 33,015,701.


•Oscar Wilde - Salome
•Arthur Rimbaud dies
•Thomas Hardy – Tess of the D’Urbervilles

Political and Military

•Charles Stewart Parnell dies

Search for your ancestors in the 1891 census

1901 Census


•Queen Victoria dies at Osborne House and is succeeded by her son who becomes Edward VII.
•The formation of the Commonwealth of Australia. Its colonies are: New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia.
•Britain"s first cinema opens in Islington, London.


•The 1901 census was taken on 31 March 1901 and gave the population as 32,527,843.

The Arts

•RenFranis-Admand Sully Prudhomme is awarded the first Nobel Prize for Literature.
•Louis Armstrong, Clark Gable and Walt Disney are born.
•Rudyard Kipling"s Kim is published.


•Tottenham Hotspur are the first non-league football team to win the FA Cup.
•In boxing James J Jeffries is the reigning Heavyweight Champion of the World.

Political and Military

•Winston Churchill enters the House of Commons.
•The Second Boer War in South Africa rages on.

Search for your ancestors in the 1901 census