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Form used to poll English households during the 2001 Census.

The United Kingdom has taken a census of its population every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 (during the Second World War). In addition to providing a wealth of interesting information about aspects of the make-up of the country, the results of the census play an important part in the calculation of resource allocation to regional and local service providers, by governments in the United Kingdom and European Union levels.



In the 7th century, Dál Riata (parts of what is now Scotland and Northern Ireland) was the first territory in what is now the UK to conduct a census, with what was called the "Tradition of the Men of Alba" (Senchus fer n-Alban). England took its first Census when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086 for tax purposes.

The UK census as we know it today started in 1801 (championed by John Rickman who managed the first four up to 1831), partly to ascertain the number of men able to fight in the Napoleonic wars, and partly over concerns stemming from An Essay on the Principle of Population by Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus (1798). Rickman's 12 reasons - set out in 1798 and repeated in Parliamentary debates - for conducting a UK census included the following justifications:

  • 'the intimate knowledge of any country must form the rational basis of legislation and diplomacy'
  • 'an industrious population is the basic power and resource of any nation, and therefore its size needs to be known'
  • 'the number of men who were required for conscription to the militia in different areas should reflect the area's population'
  • 'there were defence reasons for wanting to know the number of seamen'
  • 'the need to plan the production of corn and thus to know the number of people who had to be fed'
  • 'a census would indicate the Government's intention to promote the public good' and
  • 'the life insurance industry would be stimulated by the results.'

The government has conducted the census every ten years since 1801, most recently in 2001 (see United Kingdom Census 2001). The first four censuses (1801-1831) were mainly statistical. That is, mainly headcounts that contained virtually no personal information. A small number of older records exist in local record offices as by-products of the notes made by enumerators in the production of those earlier censuses, these might list all persons or just the heads of households. The 1841 Census was the first to intentionally record names of all individuals in a household or institution.

In 1920 the Census Act 1920 was passed, which has provided the legal framework for conducting all censuses since.

Because of World War II, there was no census in 1941. However, following the passage into law (on 5 September 1939) of the National Registration Act 1939 a population count was carried out on 29 September 1939, which was, in effect, a census.

Although the 1931 census was taken on 26 April 1931 the returns were destroyed by fire (in an accident and not after bombing) during the Second World War.[1]

A mini census was held on 24 April 1966 using a 10% sample of the population. This was the first and only time the UK government has used a quinquennial census[2][3][4]

Release of information

The government undertakes the census for policy and planning purposes, and publishes the results in printed reports and on the ONS (GROS and NISRA in Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively) website. A number of datasets are also made available.

Public access to the individual census returns is normally restricted under the terms of the 100-year rule (Lord Chancellor's Instrument no.12, issued in 1966 under S.5 (1) of the Public Records Act 1958) and until very recently, returns made available to researchers were those of the United Kingdom Census 1901.

The 1901 and 1911 censuses for Northern Ireland have been available for inspection since 1960 and the 19th century Scottish censuses were all released after 50-80 years of closure. In exceptional circumstances the Registrar General for England and Wales does release specific information from 70-, 80-, or 90-year old closed censuses.

Some argue that ministers and civil servants in England and Wales made no attempts to strictly enforce the 100-year census closure policy until 2005, five years after the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was passed, which—they argue—effectively abolished the 100-year rule. However, personal information provided in confidence is likely exempted if disclosure could result in successful prosecution for breach of confidence. Freedom of Information Act 2000, Section 41 [1]

The 1911 census for England and Wales is now available at [2] powered by and in association with the National Archives. The census was taken on Sunday 2nd April 1911 and includes more details than on previous census.

To avoid a repeat of the system overload when the 1901 census went online, the 1911 records have been added to the website gradually. A free searchable database helps users find ancestors. A charge is made to view and download a copy of the original census document.


The census is usually very accurate, with a fine of up to £1,000 for those who do not complete it. In 2001 the form in England and Wales was filled in by 94% of the population.[5]

There may be exceptions in the case of the following censuses:

The Women's Freedom League, a suffragette organisation campaigning for female suffrage in the United Kingdom, organised a boycott of the 1911 census. They encouraged women to go to all-night parties or to stay at friends' houses to avoid the census.
Some people avoided the census conducted during the year of the poll tax (1991), in case the government used it to enforce the tax. It was estimated that up to one million people were not counted in 1991.[6]


Although the 1851 census had included a question about religion on a separate response sheet, whose completion was not compulsory, the 2001 census was the first in which the government asked about religion on the main census form. New legislation was enacted through the Census (Amendment) Act 2000 to allow the question to be asked, and to make its response optional. Perhaps encouraged by a chain letter that started in New Zealand, 390,000 people entered their religion as Jedi Knight (more than any of Sikhs, Buddhists or Jews), with some areas registering up to 2.6% of people as Jedi. Thus, 'Jedi' was fourth largest reported religion in the country.(See: Jedi census phenomenon).

See also: Demographics of England from the 2001 United Kingdom census

UK Census dates

Year Date Notes New questions asked
1801 10 March Details collected were mainly head-counts, with few still existing.
1811 27 May Details collected were mainly head-counts, with few still existing.
1821 28 May Details collected were mainly head-counts, with few still existing.
1831 30 May Details collected were mainly head-counts, with few still existing.
1841 6 June Name. Age (For those over 15, this was rounded down to the nearest 5 years). Occupation. Whether born "in county" or not.
1851 30 March Relation to head of the household. Marital status. Place of birth. Whether blind, deaf or dumb.
1861 7 April
1871 2 April Whether an imbecile, idiot or lunatic.[7] (note that such usage of terms predates euphemistic definitions, see euphemism treadmill)
1881 3 April
1891 5 April Whether an employer, an employee, or neither. Number of rooms occupied, if less than 5. Language spoken (in Wales)[8]
1901 31 March Whether an employer, worker or working on one's own account. Whether working at home or not. "Language spoken (children under 3 years of age to be excluded)" (in Wales)[9]
1911 2 April How long the couple has been married. How many children were born alive, how many who are still alive, and how many who have died. Industry or service with which the worker is connected.
1921 19 June
1931 26 April Destroyed in World War II
1939 29 September National Registration Act 1939.[10] No census in 1941 because of the Second World War.
1951 8 April
1961 23 April
1971 25 April
1981 5 April
1991 21 April Ethnic group[11]
2001 29 April First question on religion on the main census form (England, Wales, and Scotland)
2011 27 March An option to complete the form online.[12] Also provides Welsh national identity option following criticism it was absent from 2001.[13] Includes questions relevant to civil partnerships. Other new questions involve asking migrants their date of arrival and how long they intend to stay in the UK, and will also require respondents to disclose which passports they hold.[14]

See also


External links



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