Out for the count: Could the 2011 census be the last?

For more than 200 years the UK census has taken stock of our nation. But thanks to fears over cost and accuracy, 2011's could be the last
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Where will you be sleeping on 27 March 2011? In a bungalow, a penthouse or a caravan?

Who'll be sharing your bed? Will you say bedtime prayers or will you be using a Jedi mind trick in the morning? Strange questions, but ones you could well be asked during the UK census this spring, when an incredibly detailed questionnaire will drop through the letterboxes of 25 million households.

The United Nations defines a true census as one that: includes every person and dwelling within a precise territory; is sponsored by a body which has the legal authority to compel people to take part; and is repeated at regular, fixed intervals. A census gives a snapshot of a population in time and a series of them makes it possible to form projections about the future.

The issue of whether the population was growing or shrinking became a hot topic of debate in the late 18th century, when Thomas Malthus, Britain's first professor of political economy, published an essay suggesting that Britain's food supply would not be able to keep step with a growing population. John Rickman, a statistician and government official, opposed this view, but in line with what was already happening in parts of Europe and the United States, agreed to the need of ascertaining the population trend to form a basis for legislation and management of international relations.

He proposed that a national census be taken every 10 years and, in 1800, drafted the first Census Act. The act authorised officials to take the count and it detailed the timeframe in which information was to be gathered. In 1801 the first national census of England, Wales and Scotland was taken, a process that has been repeated every 10 years since, with the exception of 1941; Ireland's started in 1821.

The pre-1841 censuses fell well short of the current UN criteria. Although remarkable projects, they provided little more than a head count carried out by parish officials, town clerks, overseers of the poor, wealthy householders, schoolteachers and clergymen with enough local knowledge to be sure they'd included everyone. They recorded total numbers of houses, men and women in each parish, the broad nature of their employment and numbers of births, deaths and marriages within a given time frame.

As overseers were allowed to take their time travelling between houses to take the count, inevitable inaccuracies occurred. Occupants not present at an address could be omitted, or counted twice if recorded at two dwellings on separate occasions. Censuses from England, Wales and Scotland occasionally show names and relationships, but this information was not required and, where it has survived, remains to this day in local record offices providing a bonus for a few lucky genealogists. Ages were not recorded until 1821, and from 1831 more information was requested about occupations, servants and illegitimate births.

After the General Registration Act of 1836, the administration of the census passed into the hands of the General Register Office, established to register births, marriages and deaths. Rickman, who had seen his idea come to fruition and overseen the first four censuses, died in 1840, passing responsibility to the recently appointed Registrar General, Thomas Lister. Lister advanced the process of gathering information, requesting that the name, age, gender, birthplace and occupation of each person be recorded in the census taken in June 1841. He also directed that schedules be completed by the householders themselves in one day. For the enumerators, this radical departure from previous legislation meant delivering the forms in the week leading up to census night and collecting them during the following week. Unsurprisingly, 19th-century enumerators were reluctant to enter impoverished dwellings where they could be met with disease, distrust and illiteracy, and complained that their payment was inadequate. Despite that, this process of delivery and collection has stood the test of time and remains in place today.

Over time, the questions asked gradually became more precise regarding names, addresses, relationships, age, profession, place of birth and medical conditions. And special-interest groups lobbied for questions to be included on whether Welsh or Gaelic were spoken in the household. With the use of consistent questions, trends began to be observed in migration from the countryside to the cities, and despite the dramatic fall in the Irish population, the population of Victorian Britain was seen to rise steadily. Confidentiality was introduced, encouraging honesty about age and occupation in the face of conscription, taxation and reputation.

The decline in the birth rate and emigration recorded between 1891 and 1901 raised concerns that British industry would fall behind its competitors. The health of the poorer classes had not significantly improved over the latter half of the 19th century and more detailed information was urgently needed to enable the government to intervene on welfare and protect its interests. The 1911 census provided the information required, leading eventually to the creation of the modern welfare state. Sir Bernard Mallet introduced the use of tabulation machines, already employed in the US, to enable and process more complicated census information.

Emmeline Pankhurst, herself a registrar of the previous 1901 census, may have been behind an attempt made by suffragettes to boycott the 1911 count by moving between all-night parties, but the success of that protest is uncertain. Police were asked to seek out fugitive suffragettes and list them along with anyone passing the night in barns, outhouses or in the open. To assist the 1911 count, the Salvation Army opened extra shelters for the night to try to reduce the number of people on the streets. Schedules translated into German and Yiddish were made available as a response to an influx of refugees, and the first official headcount of the British Army at home and overseas was taken. This stands today as a poignant record of almost a million men who would die before the next census came about.

In time, the value of the census as a tool for researching the past, as well as anticipating the future, became recognised. Also, for some, entries in the census were the only means they had of proving their age; after the passing of the Old Age Pensions Act in 1908, the GRO reluctantly began issuing application forms for census searches, so that proof of eligibility could be obtained.

Personal census information is held securely for 100 years before being made available to the public, so many stories of the last century are yet to be revealed. Sadly, little pre-1901 census material for Ireland has survived. Almost all pre-1861 census material was destroyed by a fire in Dublin in 1922, and other returns were pulped before it was realised that, unlike other parts of the UK, they had not been transcribed into books. In England, Wales and Scotland, the absence of a 1941 census, coupled with a fire that destroyed the 1931 returns, will create a frustrating 30-year gap in information for future researchers.

Information required by the 20th century censuses reflected the government's concerns at the time, with the emphasis shifting from health, poverty and mobility to social class and population. In recent decades, questions have been added about household amenities, qualifications, car ownership and ethnic origins. This census is the first since the Civil Partnership Act 2004, and will include tick boxes for same-sex civil partnerships.

In 2001 the question of religion was included for the first time in England, Wales and Scotland. Responding was, as it remains, optional but, perhaps encouraged by an internet campaign to have "Jedi Knight" recognised as an official religion, 390,000 people responded "Jedi", leading it to be reported as the fourth-largest religion in the UK. Despite this, it will not be listed as one of the tick-box religion options on the 2011 census. In fact, many questions remain identical to those asked 150 years ago.

The census will cost more than £250m. The information collected allows the Government, and other organisations, to target resources and plan for health care and social services, among other things. But as the Government examines different and cheaper ways to count the population more regularly, this one could be the last of its kind in Britain. After more than 200 years the census, it seems, is out for the count.

Census Facts

100: The number of years that personal census information is held before being made public

250m is how much this year's UK census will cost. 25 million households will be questioned in March

2011: Will be the first time that tick-boxes for same-sex civil partnerships will be included

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