The UK census – what is worth counting?

The questions that have been asked in the census have developed over the decades. The changes reflect changes in society and in social attitudes; and there has often been a degree of controversy about some of them. This is still true today, with new questions on gender and national identity, which would probably have been considered shocking and unacceptable in earlier years.

At this time of filling in the census form, one may well ask “why that question?” and “who needs to know this?”

In the history of census–taking in more ancient times, it was the invading rulers who implemented them to increase taxes, such as “the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed”. William the Conqueror in the Domesday book had almost everything counted and recorded, including every ox, pig and fishpond in England!

The backcloth of the 1801 census was the urgent need to know how many men could be recruited into the forces to fight Napoleon.

Beyond a head count

Until 1841, the 10-yearly census was simply a head count, with no other usable data for social history or genealogy. But now, names, ages and occupation were required, as well as whether or not the occupants were born in the same county, and, if not, whether in Scotland, Ireland or in “Foreign Parts”.

So migration was of interest at that time, unsurprising in view of the evidence of the startling growth of industrial cities, drawing labour from the countryside. It seems that Scotland and Ireland were almost foreign, (but not Wales) and that the whole of the rest of the world was all lumped together as “Foreign Parts”.

Religion was of interest but this question of course was asked only in Ireland.

By 1851, the sense of family propriety was growing, so the census wanted to know who was “Head of Household” and his (almost invariably his) relationship to each person living in the house. What language was spoken was also asked, but only in Ireland, the region most affected by tribal politics. There was also a question on whether someone was blind, deaf or dumb.

In 1871, you needed to say if somebody suffered from imbecility or mental deficiencies. This was an era of building institutions for the imbeciles and the insane. But there was also  a question on Economic Status.


Only in 1891 was the question of language asked in Wales. This shows interest in the mother-tongue, but little awareness of the potential continuum of multi-lingual skills such that has developed in modern Britain, 20% of children speaking English as an additional language.

Also in 1891, for the first time, questions were asked about the number of rooms occupied in a house. in order to assess the slum conditions of much housing of that time. The government was now interested not just in numbers of people, but also in how they lived, with differences in living conditions. This was probably prompted by the more intelligent awareness of this from the work of early social campaigners such as Charles Booth.

Questions about work

In 1901, questions about work were also refined to employment status (employer, employee, working from home), as trade unionism was becoming a visible force in politics.

1911 was the first census where the form was actually filled in by the Head of the Household himself, the assumption being by then that most people were literate enough (since the compulsory education act of 1870). Earlier Census had used paid enumerators who visited each house.

Now, the question about employment wanted more details of the type of industry. This census also wanted “Nationality of person born in a Foreign Country”, thus showing a prescience about alien status, preparing for the World War 1 internment of “enemy aliens” (some 2,000 of them).

Questions about disability were combined under “Infirmity”. For the first time there was a question about how long a couple had been married, to which was added, in 1921, a question about divorce. This was because marriages were fracturing after the First World War, and the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 put men and woman on a more equal status for divorce.

In 1931, those deciding on the questions were more aware of the travelling public as in “place of usual residence”.

Post-war era

After World War II, In the era of council house building and slum clearance, the 1951 census asked about household amenities – piped water, a cooking stove, a kitchen sink, a “water closet” (meaning a flush toilet) and a “fixed bath”.

By 1961, the age of the great expansion of higher education, and increased migration, the census enquired about “qualifications”. The type of household tenure was also counted – this was the time of slum landlords like Peter Rachman, and also when black immigrants were buying up and multi-occupying inner city houses. In 1966 (an interim mini-census) questions were asked about car-ownership.

Central heating appeared in 1991, while “infirmities” were renamed “long-term limiting illnesses”. Ethnic group was required for the first time, with no allowance for the possibility of multi-ethnicity.

In 2001, 10 years later, the government was interested in labour economics and wanted to know the size of the workforce and the supervisor status of the respondents. This was also the first census (for England, Scotland and Wales) which asked for religious identity.

When we get to 2011, civil partnerships, now provided for legally, were of interest.

Ethnic and gender identity

Artistic representation of overcrowded housing in London, from London, a Pilgrimage by William Blanchard Jerrold with illustrations by Gustave Doré, 1872.

Social attitudes continue to change – the current 2021 census goes further with a voluntary new question about whether gender identity is the same as birth identity

The ethnic identity gets very specific, with the “white” option listing:

  • English, Welsh, Scottish, N. Irish
  • Irish
  • Gypsy or Irish Traveller
  • Roma
  • Elsewhere

Then there is an Asian option (lumping South Asians and Chinese together); a black option (including Afro-Caribbean and African)

And there is a multi-ethnic option – hurrah!

At least with an entirely digital census form, as this is for the first time, it is easier to give multiple options and pathways to the exactly applicable response.

This question, and a few others, have a clickable option to discover why the government needs all this detail. The rationale for the ethnic questions, and the gender ones, is “to support equality and fairness” in the provision of services. But are the services for the two differentiated travelling people – Gypsy and Roma – so very different?

There is a probing of migration, both internal and from outside the country with questions about where you were at the same time last year, and if you were born outside UK, when did you arrive in here/

And we have a set of questions specially for those who are working after retirement, indicating that the government is interested in possible policy making around this – perhaps a further raising of the age at which state benefits are payable. Thus, we can see how the census questions reflect the political and public preoccupations of the time. Who knows what other varieties of questions future generations might regard as more important?