The census has been held every ten years since 1801, except in 1941. Before the first census, there was no attempt to count the population of England or the United Kingdom - although Gregory King attempted to estimate it in the late seventeenth century.
The first census was prompted by rapid population growth in the late eighteenth century and a succession of bad harvests and consequent high food prices in the 1790s. The nation was at war with France and there was concern about its ability to feed itself.
The 1801 census was prepared by John Rickman. It was intended to establish, among other things, how many people lived in towns and worked in manufacturing, and were therefore not producing food.
The 1801 Census revealed that the population of England was 8.3 million. Subsequent censuses asked a greater variety of questions, and more detailed records were preserved, for the benefit of future researchers.
William Cobbett did not believe the evidence of the Census. He wrote in the 1820s, after three censuses had demonstrated that the population was increasing,
‘At this Old Romney there is a church (two miles only from the last, mind!) fit to contain one thousand five hundred people, and there are for the people of the parish to live in twenty-two or twenty-three houses! And yet the vagabonds have the impudence to tell us, that the population of England has vastly increased!’
And of the River Itchen in Hampshire he said ‘this river has, on its two banks, in the distance of nine miles … thirteen parish churches. There must have been some people to erect these churches… there can be no doubt in the mind of any rational man that in the time of the Plantagenets England was more populous than it is now.’
Census returns are much used by family historians. They are also of great use to social and economic historians, in giving a snapshot of a place at one point in time, and showing change over a period. The population of Manchester, for example, grew from 75,000 in 1801 to 645,000 in 1901. Poplar in the East End of London grew from 8,278 in 1801 to 168,882 in 1901.
Not everywhere grew as rapidly, however. The population of Bath was 33,000 in 1801, 50,000 in 1901. Some very small rural places grew even more slowly, or even declined in population.