In the late 18th century, there was a growing concern in Britain about the rapidly rising population and an increasing demand for food. Social commentators at the time argued that more people meant more labourers, and that if something wasn’t done it would inevitably lower wages and lead to national poverty.
One such commentator was Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 published his “Essay on the Principle of Population”. He argued that if population growth wasn’t kept in check it would quickly lead to misery, vice and poverty. His theory proved controversial with the ruling elite and it divided political debate at the time.
However, with Britain often at war with Spain and France, the call for a national census fell on receptive ears. If an official population figure could be identified it would at least offer the government an invaluable aid in effective military recruitment.
The Census Bill was presented to Parliament on 20 November 1800, was passed on 3 December and received Royal Assent on 31 December (Gazette issue 15324). It was decided that the first official census would be held on Monday 10 March 1801.
The census came in two parts. The first concerned the number of people, their occupations and the number of families in each house. The second concerned the numbers of baptisms, marriages and burials in each parish, which would help determine how fast the population was growing.
The overall responsibility for carrying out the census lay with appointed officials who were often the local Overseers of the Poor. They knocked on doors in their parish and collected the numbers before submitting them to government.
By modern standards, the census operation was completed in a remarkably short time. The first abstracts were printed and laid before Parliament on 31 December 1801 – just a year after the Bill received Royal Assent.
The census showed that the total population for England and Wales was 8.87 million. This, together with a count of just under 500,000 military personnel, seamen and convicts who were not included in figures for the census itself, gave an estimate of 9.4 million. This confirmed a population close to the previous year’s estimate of 9.2 million.
Regular censuses were held every 10 years, and with the population continuing to grow the figures were used to justify social legislation, such as the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. By 1901, with the population at 32.5 million, the new Liberal government of 1906 began to lay the foundations for the welfare state.
Although very few records survive from the 1801 census, you can search for records from 1841 onwards at Ancestry.co.uk.