By Stephen Moss
Roger Hutchinson’s breezily anecdotal book reveals the history and controversy behind the UK census
The introduction of the census in England, Scotland and Wales in 1801 was a very British coup. It was largely the inspiration of one man, John Rickman, an obscure journalist in his mid-20s who, in 1796, hit on the far-from-earth-shattering idea that it might be handy to know the size of the nation’s population. Rickman, who had no previous experience of public administration, then spent the next 40 years overseeing the decennial census, backed up by a small team of clerks who collated the returns from an army of data gatherers in the field – overseers of the poor in England and Wales, schoolmasters in Scotland, and policemen and clergymen in Ireland, which was added in 1821 and always proved more recalcitrant than the rest of the UK. It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but, while the pre-1841 censuses were far from complete, Rickman and his team did an admirable job.
Historians have tended to overlook the operation of the census, perhaps considering the subject too dry and statistical. There is no modern biography of Rickman, and analysis of the Victorian censuses tends to be found in specialist statistical journals. Credit then to the prolific author Roger Hutchinson for filling the gap with an engaging history of a survey professional historians have too often taken for granted.