/ UiT The Arctic University of Norway

Quotations on Censuses

From Higgs, E. (1996). A clearer sense of the census : the Victorian censuses and historical research. London.

"2 The history of nineteenth-century census-taking

The state and population surveys


Such narrow pecuniary interests gradually gave way to broader considerations in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In this period European states and their colonies carne, to take stock of their military resources in an age of almost incessant warfare. Possibly the first attempt to count everyone in an area larger than a city at successive intervals was made in La Nouvelle France (Quebec) and Acadie (Nova Scotia), where sixteen enumerations were undertaken between 1665 and 1754. A complete census was taken in Iceland in 1703. In 1749 the Swedish clergy, who had long kept lists of parishioners, were required to render returns from which the total population of Sweden (including Finland) was obtained, and a similar exercise took place in Denmark in 1787. In Austria under the impact of Maria Theresa's population policy, partly a response to the effects of the Turkish wars, censuses were initiated in 1754. Various Italian states conducted approximately accurate enumerations in the eighteenth century: Sardinia in 1773 and 1795; Parma in 1770; and Tuscany in 1766. Enumerations also occurred in several German states from 1742 onwards.

Although some British colonies in America had made full enumerations in the period before the American War of Independence, the first census of the United States in 1790 broke new ground. This was not only because of the size of the area enumerated, and the attempt to obtain information on certain characteristics of individuals in the population, but also because of the political purpose for which it was undertaken: the apportionment of representation in Congress.

Private estimates of the population of England date back at least to the works of William Petty, Gregory King and Charles Davenant in the late seventeenth century. A new population debate arose in the 1750s as to whether or not the population had increased since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Conservative defenders of the agricultural interest agreed with political radicals in believing that the population of England had declined under the dominance of a Whig aristocracy and the rising commercial classes. Commerce and political jobbery were seen as having caused a general moral and sexual debauchment which had led to population decline. Similar views were held by radicals such as William Cobbett in the early nineteenth century.' Others defended the rise of commerce and claimed that the population had increased since 1688. Much of this debate revolved around population estimates based upon taxation records and the ecclesiastical registers of baptisms, marriages and burials.


A bill proposing an annual enumeration of the population by the overseers of the poor, and the enforcement of compulsory ecclesiastical registration of vital events, was introduced into parliament in 1753. Its supporters hoped that these measures would allow the calculation of the maximum size of any army which could be raised in times of need; provide evidence as to the desirability of emigration to the colonies; and show the burden of the poor law on the country. Its opponents argued that the proposed enumeration would be impractical and costly, and might be used as the basis of new taxation and conscription. Given the eighteenth-century perception of a standing army as the first step to the establishment of an absolute monarchy, the violence of the opposition to the bill is perhaps understandable. Mernories of the attempt by james 11 to establish just such a government through an army loyal to the Crown, and to reintroduce Roman Catholicism, were still very much alive. Nevertheless, the bill passed through all its stages in the Commons and received its second reading in the Lords. It was, however, referred to a Committee of the Whole House, and before this could meet the parliamentary session ended and the bill lapsed."


From Glass, David V (1973): Numbering the people. The eighteenth-century population controversy and the development of census and vital statistics in Britain.


"It is true that a number of countries had made great progress in the collection of population statistics by the middle of the eighteenth century. In Iceland, for example, a complete census was taken in 1703, largely because, with the extreme degradation of that country at the time, it was considered essential to obtain a detailed account of the extent of poverty and of the need for economic assistance and relief. But there was no comprehensive analysis of the results of the census., and the subsequent censuses in 1762, 1769 and 1785 were less satisfactory. In Sweden, primarily in response to the mortality and depopulation associated with or resulting from the Great northern War (1700-21), attempts were made in the 1740s to ascertain the numbers of inhabitants of the country, and these resulted in the establishment, by an Act of 1748, of national registration, on a parochial basis, of population and vital statistics. With various modifications, the system thus created has continued to provide the demographic statistics of Sweden. Even in its early beginnings, in the 1760s, the system supplied, through the work of Wargentin and Runeberg, the outstanding demographic statistics of the eighteenth century. In Austria, too, under the impact of the population policy of Maria Theresa, which in turn was a response partly to the effects of the Turkish wars and partly to the general influence of mercantilism, censuses were initiated in 1754. There was a census in Norway in 1769 and censuses in Denmark in 1769 and 1787. But even for these countries, with the exception of Iceland, the data began with the middle of the eighteenth century, and the position in the earlier part of the century was relatively obscure. For most other countries, census statistics were far less satisfactory. In the German states there was a long history of local enumerations, and this was also the case for Italy. But early enumerations covering large territories were lacking or else substantially defective. Demographic statistics for France were also unsatisfactory. France was, through Colbert, one of the first countries to initiate a mercantilist population policy, in 1666, but as in so many other countries, statistics lagged far behind policy.

... Moreover, it should be remembered that many of the earlier data were not available to contemporary writers, cither because there was no effective central organization for collecting and collating local results or because, under the impact of mercantilism, population statistics were considered too valuable to statesmen to be made public. The original results of the Austrian census of 1754 were assumed to have disappeared. Treated as confidential materials, they lay buried in the archives until they were rediscovered in the present century. Even in Sweden, which was more free than most other European countries from this obsession of secrecy, the data collected in the early years of the new system of national registration were kept unpublished. It was not immediately apparent that, if full use was to be made of census aud vital statistics, they should be published, and it was in the 1760s that, for example, reports on, and analysis of, these statistics by Runeberg and Wargentin first appeared in the proceedings of the Swedish Academy of Science.


These defects in the population and vital statistics were known to contemporary writers, or at least there were ample contemporary references to them. Thus Forster wrote, in 1757: '1 cannot conclude this long scroll without recommending it strongly to the members of the Royal Society, who have many of them seats in parliament, and most of them interest in those that have, to get an Act passed for perfecting registers. The trouble is trilling; the expence nothing. It would be of great service like~vise to number the people: and this might be done with great case. Arthur Young argued strongly in favour of a quinquennial census, ... Young was not worried, as was William Wales, about the need for secrecy regarding the size of the population. Wales was theoretically in favour of a census; he felt that Young's proposal 'would certainly be very agreeable to every speculative mind, intent on the inquiry after truth, in any branch of natural knowledge; and, perhaps, at some future time, such a project may be put in execution without any fear of bad consequences . . .' At that particular time, however, he feared that, should a census show a smaller population than 'our enernies' had estimated to obtain in England, they might take fresh courage and believe us to be weaker than we really were. Young, on the other hand, thought that our enemies already knew much more important facts about us - .... But that there was also substantial opposition to the idea of censuses and comprehensive vital registration is only too evident from the treatment of the two Bills introduced in Parliament to that end - Mr Potter's Bill of 1753 and another Bill of 1758.

The discussion in Parliament of the 1753 Bill is well known, largely because of the. contemporary publicity evoked by William Thornton's attack. Considerable space was given to the debate in The Gentleman's Magazine," but in the main the arguments in favour of the proposal were only briefly summarized, while the tirade of Thornton was reported at length. At the same time the actual details of the proposal are not stated in the contemporary reports, and it is thus of some interest to give the main outlines of the Bill itself.

The proposal was entitled 'An Act for Taking and Registering an Annual Account of the Total Number of People and the Total Number of Marriages, births and deaths; and also the Total Number of Poor receiving Alms from every Parish and Extraparochial Place in Great Britain. It provided that, on 24 June 1754, and on the same day of each subsequent year, the Overseers of the Poor should go from house to house in their parishes, recording the numbers of persons actually dwelling in each house during the twelve preceeding hours, distinguishing separately for males and females the numbers under twenty years of age, those aged twenty and under sixty years, and those aged sixty years and over. .... These duplicates and abstracts were then to be handed once a year (by 10 August) to the Chief Constable of the Hundred or Division, who was to pass them to the Clerk of the Peace. In turn the latter was to keep the duplicates for the country properly arranged, while transmitting the abstracts within one month to the Commissioners for Trade and Plantations. The Commissioners were really the responsible authorities, and it was their duty to compile an abstract for the whole of Britain and to present it each year to Parliament. Due precautions were also taken to ensure that all the people concerned complied with the provisions. Obstruction, refusal or neglect as regards notification was to be met by a fine of up to 40s. ........

Against the advantages cited by the supporters of the Bill were the fears of the population as reported, for example, by Matthew Ridley who, though in favour of registering births and deaths and ascertaining the numbers of the poor, was against a general census. He could sec no point to it, and at the same time the superstition of the country was being aroused. He had received letters from various parts of the country, telling him 'that the people everywhere look upon it in this light [the light of superstition], which has not only filled them with imaginary terrors, but has raised stich a violent spirit of opposition to this Bill, that if it be passed into a law, there is great reason to fear, they will in many places oppose the execution of it in a riotous manner; and that if it should be accidentally followed by any epidemical distemper, or by a public misfortune of any other kind, it may raise such a popular flame as will endanger the peace, if not the existence of our present government'. The traditional fear of divine anger if the people were to be numbered was obviously powerful. The supporters of the Bill dealt with Ridley's objections by arguing that much of the public antagonism, if indeed it really existed, was meaningless, and that people would cease to object once the Bill had been passed and they had seen how little inconvenience was actually involved. But these comments were no reply to William Thornton's attack. He spoke as the last defender of British freedom. For him there were only too obviously ulterior and unexpressed reasons for bringing in the Bill. He could not believe that the reasons given by the proposers were valid or even true. '1 cannot believe', he said in his widely quoted attack, 'that the motives which they [the proposers] are Pleased to assign are those from which they act; the hope of some advantage to themselves can only urge them to perpetrate such evil to others; for, not to set any value upon the reputation or peace which they risk, it can never be imagined that they would molest and perplex every single family in the Kingdom merely to set a beggar to work, or determine any questions in political arithmetic.' He could find no advantage in knowing our numbers. 'Can it be pretended, that by the knowledge of our number, or our wealth, cither can be increased?' He thus inferred that the results of the project would be increased tyranny at home, and he found nothing but ill in the whole proposal. It was 'totally subversive of the last remains of English liberty'. If it became law, he would oppose its execution, and if any official came to collect information regarding the 'number and circumstances of my family, I would refuse it; and, if he persisted in the affront, I would order my servants to give him the discipline of the horse pond...' lf necessary, he would spend his remaining days in some other country rather than be a spectator of the ruin he could not prevent. These statements have a peculiarly timeless quality; similar views are occasionally expressed today. Thornton did not, however, succeed in defeating the Bill, though he swelled the opposition at each successive division. Defeat came through the House of Lords, and very simply. At its second reading, on 23 May 1753, the Bill was ordered to be referred to a Committee of the whole House a month from that day. But since that was after the end of the parliamentary session, the Bill lapsed and it was not brought up again."

So much for a project which, had it not miscarried, would have given us demographic statistics almost as comprehensive as those of Sweden, and beginning almost as early."