Book of the Month: January – the census

The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker: The story of Britain through its census since 1801
Roger Hutchinson

This was a book which a friend on LJ had read and reviewed, and which sounded interesting, the census having definitely Georgian roots.

Although there had been censuses at many times and in many places (in the bible, in the Roman empire, the Norman census known as the Domesday book), mainly of taxpayers and potential soldiers, the modern British census is essentially a creation of the Napoleonic Wars, when two problems became important – the size of the population compared to the population of France, and the need to know how many people had to be fed, in order to know how much food was needed for them, in an age of wildly fluctuating grain prices.

The book is particularly good on these early censuses, overseen by John Rickman, and still figuring out exactly what is to be done. The first census, in 1801, is a count of households and of people, of births, deaths and marriages and of those employed in various categories of work, but it is not the record of individuals that it later becomes. The 1821 census is the first to record at least rough ages, as well as the first to cover Ireland, and it is 1841 before the census records individual names.

The second half of the book is more thematic, looking at changing occupations, population movement within Britain, the speakers of various languages, immigration and emigration, including those who came and left, or went and came back, and attempts to survey the population of various other parts of the empire.

In a way, a book which was more focused on the early days might have been even better, particularly for me, but it was still a very interesting books covering a wide variety of topics.

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