10 March 1801: Britain conducts its first census

At the turn of the 19th century, the government had only a vague idea of how many people were living in Britain. That was a problem. With a French invasion on the cards, the government needed to know how many conscripts it could call on. But there was another enemy to guard against – one that was far more insidious and closer to home.

The industrial revolution had brought about a population explosion. And while population growth was hailed as a good thing both in terms of economic and imperial expansion, it also posed a threat to public order – something Britain’s ruling class was desperate to avoid, given the recent revolution across the Channel.

The problem was that mechanisation brought greater efficiency in the field and the factory, but it also led to large-scale job losses. Much of the population was forced to live hand to mouth and things were only getting worse as the population grew.

Thomas Malthus (well-known to economists as the man behind the idea of ‘peak growth’) warned that there would come a time when Britain could no longer feed its people. So how many hungry (and angry) people would there be?

To answer this question, statistician John Rickman drafted the Census Act of 1800. It called for a comprehensive survey of the British population (excluding Ireland) down to the level of the individual. And it was to be carried out every ten years.

The following year, on 10 March, an army of parish officials in England and Wales, and schoolmasters in Scotland, went door to door recording how many houses there were, who lived in them, and what the occupants did for a living.

Once the results were in, Rickman realised the census hadn’t been a great success. There were gaps in the information, which varied from parish to parish. Some parishes didn’t even return the data.

But the data did show that the combined population of England, Wales and Scotland had grown to over ten million. And when compared with the census taken ten years later, the government was shocked to discover that the population of England and Wales had continued to swell – by another million people.