Census & Society: why everyone counts

7 March – 19 June 2011

  • Why do we collect statistics on population?
  • What can they tell us?
  • How do we chart our changing lives?
The 21st census in Britain will be held on 27 March 2011. It is now one of the most widely-used sources of data in planning, policy development and research. Census & Society: why everyone counts (7 March – 19 June 2011) is a new British Library exhibition that explores how the census has influenced our view of society and how it has in turn been shaped by the values and priorities surrounding its implementation.

Each section of the exhibition (families and households, health, employment and migration) includes examples of data from censuses alongside materials which illustrate how life in Britain is changing, and the issues of most concern. Visitors will be able to see photographs, maps, public information broadcasts and cartoons, alongside insights from the census data itself.

From the first modern attempt to introduce a census to England in 1753, the idea has generated interest and strong emotion. The census has always been an occasion for satire, subversion and resistance. The exhibition looks at some of the controversies and some of the ways in which the census has been used as an opportunity in wider political campaigns.

Alongside issues of national or state interest, historic census records have increasingly been used by people with a personal interest in their family or local history. Copies of census returns for Annie Besant, the political author and campaigner, will be on display to show what these records can tell us about an individual and family life.

The exhibition describes some of the people and works surrounding early calls for a more detailed population count, including the first edition of Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), and John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations, written some hundred years earlier.

From 1851 onwards, the census was generating data on a scale and at a level of detail unprecedented in Britain. The reporting of census results provided new challenges in statistical representation, and encouraged new ways of thinking about the public presentation of data. The exhibition features examples of 19th century innovation such as Augustus Petermann’s population density map (1841), one of the earliest of its kind. Census reports from Ireland, in several ways more sophisticated than their British counterparts during the 19th century, feature the early use of colour in charts and maps, surprising for official publications from this time.

Census & Society: why everyone counts displays more than the official representation of results. The census, and our reactions to it, have been satirised in cartoons from its beginnings through to present day. The exhibition features a church sermon, play, poem and a rap.

Ian Cooke, Social Science Curator at the British Library, said:

“The census, and the way that we respond to it, provides rich insights into many aspects of our daily lives and families. In Census & Society we illustrate issues that have been and remain important to us. As well as urgent and serious concerns, we also include more playful and creative reactions to the census.”

For more information, please visit: www.bl.uk/census

Notes to Editors:

Census & Society: why everyone counts is open from 7 March to 19 June 2011 in the Folio Society Gallery at the British Library. Admission to the exhibition is FREE.

Exhibition opening hours

Monday, Wednesday-Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Tuesday 10.00 – 20.00, Saturday 10.00 – 17.00, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11.00 – 17.00. For further information about the British Library and its exhibitions please see: www.bl.uk/whatson


Broken down by age, sex and religion: the history of the census in Britain
Monday 14 March
18.30 – 20.00

Explore the history of the census - how it has been carried out, the information it can uncover and reactions to it across time. Speakers include Audrey Collins, family history specialist at the National Archive, Edward Higgs, Professor of History at the University of Essex and Dr Stephen Thompson, Cambridge University. £6/£4 concessions.

There are two study days for researchers using population data, or who are interested in finding out more about census data:

Tuesday 12 April – An introduction to using census data for UK researchers organised with the UK Data Archive, featuring presentations on interaction data, samples of anonymised records and the longitudinal study.

Tuesday 10 May – Event on longitudinal data sources including major studies, research projects and their application to policy, organised in conjunction with the UK Data Archive and Longview.

For more information about the 2011 census, please visit: www.census.gov.uk

For more information about the first family history and genealogy website to make the complete birth, marriage and death indexes and the complete census collection for England & Wales available online, please visit: www.findmypast.co.uk

The Folio Society was founded in 1947 to create exceptional editions of the world’s greatest books through the highest standards of printing, binding, typography and illustration. Over sixty years on, its aim remains the same - to publish reasonably priced books that will stand the test of time, in handsome, imaginatively designed and beautifully crafted editions. www.foliosociety.com

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WhyaCensus?<br />GeneralRegister<br />OfficeandCentral<br />Officeof<br />Information,<br />publishedHMSO1961<br />(creditBritish<br />LibraryBoard)

Why a Census? General Register Office and Central Office of Information, published HMSO 1961 (credit British Library Board)

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ThomasAnnan,Close<br />No.118,High<br />Street,Glasgow,<br />1898(creditBritish<br />LibraryBoard)

In the late 19th century, Thomas Annan was commissioned by the trustees of the City of Glasgow Improvement Trust to photograph buildings that would soon be pulled down. The Trust wanted to improve living conditions for the poorest people in Glasgow, and Annan’s photographs document the dark and claustrophobic Closes, and also the people who lived in these buildings.

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WilliamFarr,Vital<br />Statistics(credit<br />BritishLibrary<br />Board)

William Farr, Vital Statistics (credit British Library Board)

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TheCensus,Punch,<br />20April1861<br />(creditBritish<br />LibraryBoard)

The reluctance of women to give their age on census forms is a joke that returns with almost every census. The popular myth was that unmarried women in particular would be unwilling to give their correct age in case it affected their chance of marrying. The myth continued despite attempts in census reports to show that there was no evidence of women routinely lying about their age.

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TheCensus!The<br />Farce,1861(credit<br />BritishLibrary<br />Board)

The Census! The Farce, 1861 (credit British Library Board)

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Fillingupthe<br />censuspaper(credit<br />BritishLibrary<br />Board)

Unlike age, there is evidence that women were dissatisfied about the way that census forms, and the conventions of completing and reporting on them, devalued both their role in their households and the status of their employment. 

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AnnieBesant(credit<br />BritishLibrary<br />Board)

Past census records are an invaluable source for people studying their family histories. The 1841 census is the first to ask for names, and 1851 the first to ask about relationships within a household. Personal data in censuses are kept secure for 100 years, so the most recent forms that can be used for family history are 1911. In our exhibition, we use the example of Annie Besant, to show the sorts of information that can be found in census records. This enumerator’s form from 1881 records Annie at her home in Kilburn, living with two domestic servants and a visiting scholar. Annie is described as the head of the household, and her occupation as political author.

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Census fact sheet

The UK census is actually run by three organisations: the Office for National Statistics (England and Wales), the General Register Office of Scotland, and The Northern Ireland Statistical Research Agency. Although most of the questions are the same, some, such as the question about religion, differ.

The 1801 census was carried out in England and Wales and Scotland. A census in Ireland was partially completed in 1813, and then carried out in full in 1821.

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Census timeline

1662 – John Graunt calls for more accurate counts of population in his work, Natural and political observations.

1753 – A bill to hold an annual population count was passed by the House of Commons despite vigorous opposition. The bill was still being discussed by the House of Lords at the end of the Parliamentary session, and does not become an act.

1790 – First US census held to establish the level of representation at Congress for each State.

1798 – Thomas Malthus publishes his Essay on the principle of population, drawing attention to the link between population growth and the need for resources to support a growing population.

1800 – An Act for taking an Account of the population of Great Britain, and of the Increase or Diminution thereof.

1801 – First census in England, Wales and Scotland.

1821 – First census to be carried out in full in Ireland.

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Did you know?

From 1871 the census asked if people were ‘lunatics’ and ‘imbeciles’ or ‘idiots’. In 1881, the then Registrar General commented: “It is against human nature to expect a mother to admit her young child to be an idiot, however much she may fear this to be true. To acknowledge the fact is to abandon all hope.” Enquiries into infirmities ceased after 1911.

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Census data examples

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