Nelson & His World

The Napoleonic Wars and the first modern census
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Author:  Mark Barrett [ Sat Sep 19, 2009 10:06 pm ]
Post subject:  The Napoleonic Wars and the first modern census

Anyone who has had a dabble in genealogy will most likely know that the first modern census took place in 1801 - albeit virtually all the original records were destroyed.

I was told the other day that one reason behind the census was the need to know how many people the country was trying to feed as the war dragged on and there was a run of poor harvests.

A different source said that it was to know how many men could be called on to fight in the war.

It certainly seems that the war was the driving factor. (not forgetting of course dear old Malthus in the background with his theories on population growth).

I'd like to know some time if we were the first country to conduct such a Census in modern times. If so it must be our model that was "exported"
right round the world.

I have never even bothered to ask to see Census records prior to 1841 as I believed they simply didn't exist.

But I learned recently that there is an original copy of the 1811 records for this area where I live still in existence. I'm looking forward to seeing those - just out of curiosity.


Author:  tycho [ Sat Sep 19, 2009 10:35 pm ]
Post subject: 


Although I worked in the National Archives Search Department many years ago, I never worked in the Census Room, though I am sure I am right in saying that the Census Returns prior to 1841 were purely numerical, a simple head count; there were no details such as names, addresses, occupations, age etc. that you find from 1841 onwards. They are, therefore, of little use in genealogical searches.

I'll be interested to know, once you've consulted the 1811 census, whether I've remembered correctly.

Author:  tycho [ Sat Sep 19, 2009 10:48 pm ]
Post subject: 

A quick Google suggests that it was indeed the Malthusian predictions of over-population that overcame opposition to a census. The link below speaks of a 'headcount', but doesn't say explicitly that the census was purely numerical. ... ern-census

The first modern census was introduced by an official of Louis XIV (scroll down for the information)

and the United States conducted its first census in 1790.

Author:  Mark Barrett [ Sun Sep 20, 2009 12:27 am ]
Post subject: 

I am sure I am right in saying that the Census Returns prior to 1841 were purely numerical,


Yes - that's exactly what I was told and hence I never even asked the question after that.

But the bits and pieces I have picked up now are as follows:

- The first 4 censuses were conducted at parish level - with summaries being sent to central government.

- Although information collected was much less than later years it included the following:

The 1801 census was in two parts: the first was concerned with the number of people, their occupations, and numbers of families and houses. The second was a collection of the numbers of baptisms, marriages and burials, thus giving an indication of the rate at which the population was increasing or decreasing.

I am guessing that there may have been an instruction that once the summaries had been forwarded the originals shouild be destroyed - but a few simply slipped through the net.

The "parish chest" was the depository for important documents back then. Could be that a few just got put in there by mistake.

Indeed that is the source of these ones here. I was looking through a list of items passed from the "parish chest" to the local archive for a map allocating land under the Inclosure Acts. Sods law - I didn't find what I was looking for - but I did spot this reference to records of the 1811 Census. When it comes to it they may be quite boring and nondescript but it can't do any harm to take a look.

I probably shouldn't admit it but I have a strange fascination with these administrative processes of 200 years ago - it takes all sorts!!


Author:  Devenish [ Sun Sep 20, 2009 10:34 am ]
Post subject: 

Mark Anna,

I would guess that it is an easy assumption to make that, since it took place in 1801, the first census was primarily concerned with the availability of man power for 'the war', or even the need to know the exact number of people in the country because of the bad harvests.

Anna, your link would seem to suggest that the census had a life of its own and was not primarily driven by either of the above concerns. I would actually imagine that there were quite a few things going on in the country, ie. in the passing of legislaton, which might have had no, or very little, connection with the war at all.

Author:  Mark Barrett [ Sun Sep 20, 2009 12:45 pm ]
Post subject: 


I'm going through a rapid learning curve here.

It seems that the first Census Act was promoted by a character named John Rickman.

He gave 12 reasons to justify a census among which were the following:

- "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."

So I suppose safest to say that it was a mixture of general issues and others related directly to the war.

What a logistical nightmare that first census must have been. As ever I am totally in awe of what the people of this era achieved!!


Author:  Devenish [ Mon Sep 21, 2009 8:54 am ]
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Thanks for giving John Rickman's reasons for the 1801 census. From them it would seem obvious that considerations for the war were a large a factor in drawing it up.

As to your last comment, like you I am always in admiration of what people were capable of in ages before ours, not only the Georgian era, and with none of the advantages and advances in so many areas that we have today. But then they probably thought the same in, say, the Georgian era of earlier generations! Conversely, I believe there are areas in which they were far better at doing some things, but their methods have largely been lost and the knowledge has not been passed on. I guess this is why, when something from the past has attempted to be replicated today, those doing it are on a sharp learning curve there too! (One only has to watch some of the history programmes on Discovery Channel to see examples of that) It also then follows, that we today are unused and untrained in many areas that were commonplace in past ages. However, that's progress!

Author:  fertooos [ Thu Mar 26, 2020 8:55 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: The Napoleonic Wars and the first modern census

It is a natural process that accompanies the growth of the population in North America. And the same code change is happening in every country when cities and towns are growing. It is an inevitable thing. For example, the population in Toronto is increasing every year. And every few years new codes are being added. But people know where to check for the most recent ones. And all works well.

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