Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
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Friday, 20 January 2012

17 Jan 2012 - "Census - Past and Present"

Over 30 members and guests were in attendance to hear Bob Foulkes give a fascinating talk on the "Census - Past and Present", from their surprisingly early roots to the recent 2011 UK census where, for the first time, people were invited to submit their responses on-line.

The first evidence of a census was from that taken in Babylon in ~4000 BC - so perhaps all those Family Trees going back to Adam and Eve are not as fanciful as we have been led to believe...  Our word "Census" comes from the Latin (Censere - to appraise, value, judge.).  In ancient Rome, a Censor was one of two magistrates in charge of the census determining "the enrollment of the names and property assessments of all Roman citizens". In addition to maintaining the census records, the Roman Censors were responsible for supervising public morality.  It must have been a relief to the enumerators in 2011 who were braving unfriendly dogs and sometimes unwilling members of the public that they were not expected to investigate "public morality".

The ideas of Thomas Malthus which were expounded in "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798. Following this, the problems associated with food shortages and an influx of refugees related to the Napoleonic Wars at the beginning of the 19th century caused anxiety about the numbers of people living in the UK.  In 1800, prompted by a poor harvest, a manufacturing recession, large-scale unemployment and public protests, Parliament passed a bill enabling it to ascertain the exact population of Britain.  It was argued that a national headcount would enable the government to plan the distribution of grain supplies more effectively.  A year later the formal headcount census, revealing 10.9 million people, included only England, Scotland, Wales, the Army, Navy, Seamen - and Convicts.  Until 1861, the enumeration task was undertaken by Schoolteachers in Scotland and, until 1841, by the Overseers of the Poor and similar officials in England and Wales.  After these dates, it became the responsibility of the Registrar General who retains this role today.

In 1841, for the first time, names and other details of use to family historians were taken and recorded and the Householder was responsible for providing the data.  A Census was then held every 10 years except for 1941 because of the Second World War.  Bombing during this time also destroyed the records for the 1931 Census for England and Wales.

The technology used has changed over the years - the first mechanical sorting taking place in 1911, the first use of a computer in 1961, the use of Postal returns in 2001 and the first direct, on-line provision of the data in 2011 (see:

Bob's personal experience of taking part in the organisation of the 2011 Census enabled him to give us an excellent description of exactly how it was carried out and to include some of the trials and tribulations of those involved.  We have come a long way from the days of concentration on  whether it was possible to feed everyone in the country and, by means of a short quiz, we learned that from previous data, men in Orkney work the highest average hours in Scotland, that in Glasgow 56% of houses have no car, that people in the Aberdeen have the shortest average commute to work (6 Km), that 32.5% of people in Edinburgh have a degree, that 95% of the residents of South Lanarkshire were born in Scotland and that 2% of people in Argyll and Bute speak, read and write Gaelic.  Analysis of the data for 2001 can be found on the Scottish Census Results OnLine website: and that for the 2011 census is due in 2014

Patricia and John Weston

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