Census in the United Kingdom
Learn more about Census in the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has taken a census of its population every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941. In addition to providing a wealth of interesting information about aspects of the make-up of the country, the results of the census plays 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 (part of what is now Scotland) 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, 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 census has been conducted every ten years since 1801 and most recently in 2001 (see United Kingdom Census 2001). The first four censuses (1801-1831) were mainly statistical (that is, they were mainly headcounts and contained virtually no personal information). The 1841 Census was the first to record names of all individuals in a household or institution.
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 a population count was carried out on 29 September 1939, which was, in effect, a census.
Although the 1931 census was taken on 26th April 1931 the returns were destroyed by fire (after bombing) during the Second World War.
The census is undertaken by the government for policy and planning purposes, and the statistical information is also sold to interested parties. Public access to the census returns is 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 the most recent returns made available to researchers are those of the United Kingdom Census 1901.
However 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 & Wales does release specific information from 70-, 80-, or 90-, year old closed censuses (including the 1911 census).
It has been argued that in England and Wales no attempts were made by ministers and civil servants strictly to enforce the 100-year census closure policy until 2005, five years after the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was passed, which some have argued abolished the 100-year rule. However personal information provided in confidence is clearly exempted if its disclosure could result in a prosecution for breach of confidence. 
In January 2002, the much-anticipated England & Wales census for 1901 went online. Within minutes it was inaccessible because of server and network load, and it had to be taken offline. Later in the year, after upgrades had been made, it came back online.
The census is usually very accurate, and with a fine of up to £1,000 for those who do not complete it, filled in by a high percentage of the population. 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, and women were encouraged to go to all-night parties or to stay at friends' houses in order to avoid completing the census.
- Some people avoided the census conducted during the years of the poll tax (1991), in case it was used for enforcing the tax.
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. Perhaps encouraged by a chain letter that started in New Zealand, 390,000 people entered their religion as Jedi Knight (more than either Sikhs, Buddhists or Jews), with some areas registering up to 2.6% of people as Jedi. (See: Jedi census phenomenon)
Controversially the Northern Ireland census included a supplementary question on what religion a person was brought up in for those stating no religion in response to the main question
 See also
- List of United Kingdom censuses
- Demographics of the United Kingdom
- Demographics of England from the 2001 United Kingdom census
- Jedi census phenomenon
- Citizen Information Project
- Population of England historical population estimates
- Census Enumerators' Books (historical)
- Census of Ireland, 1911
 External links
- The Office for National Statistics, which is responsible for the Census in England and Wales
- The Census Office for Northern Ireland
- The General Register Office for Scotland which has been responsible for the taking of the census in Scotland since 1861.
- Scotland's Census Results OnLine
- Campaign to disclose the 1911 Census
- The Census Order 2000 (England & Wales)
- House of Commons The Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Home Affairs of the UK Parliament noting the 1939 Registration Act and the historical background associated with proposals for the (re)introduction of identity cards in the UK.
- Statewatch for information about the National Registration Act of 1939, the information that was required to be collected, and the issuing of identity cards.
- Online Historical Population Reports Project (OHPR)
- United Kingdom Census Records Historical UK census records online.
- UK Census for Family Historians
- England & Wales Jedi Map