A communication from the government concerning the 2021 census has been dropping through our letter-boxes over the past two or three weeks. It takes place today, Sunday, March 21, and for the first time the form can be filled in on-line. The census has a long history dating back over thousands of years. This is the story.

The Purpose of Censuses

Basically there are two types of census, either to record property, usually for taxation purposes, or people, to assist government in planning.

A number of censuses are recorded in the Bible. The most famous one is the Roman census attended by Joseph and Mary, which Christians remember each Christmas. The biblical book of Numbers is so called because it lists the numbers recorded in two censuses at the beginning and at the end of the exodus.

The first census in England was the Domesday Book, compiled in 1086. It was ordered by William the Conqueror for recording land ownership and to help in the levying of taxation. Both High Wycombe and West Wycombe, known as “Wicumbe”, were recorded in Domesday. The settlements had recorded populations of 60 and 44 households respectively, putting each among the largest 20% recorded in Domesday.

Posse Comitatus

In 1798 a survey, effectively a census, called the Posse Comitatus was taken throughout the country of men aged 16 to 60, listing their names and occupations. It also included the number of draught horses, wagons and carts available. This was an assessment of the potential for a civil defence force in the event of invasion by Napoleon. Buckinghamshire is fortunate in being the only county where a complete set of these records survive.

Modern Censuses

The modern censuses stem from the Census Act of 1800. Since 1801 a census has taken place once a decade, about the same time every year, The 1801 to 1831 censuses were mainly statistical. Since 1841 each census attempted to record the names and details of everyone in the land.

Up to the census in 1901 enumerators went door to door delivering forms, known as schedules, for the head of the household to complete. They visited not just houses, but also gypsy caravans, docked ships, military barracks, hospitals, workhouses and prisons. They then returned a few days later to collect the completed forms, but because many people were illiterate the enumerators had to fill in the form for many householders. The information in the forms was then copied into enumerators books; it is these which have survived and can be consulted by researchers.

In the case of the 1911 census it is the forms which have survived and can be consulted. This is an important difference, particularly for family historians, because it means that a sample of the householder’s handwriting, including their signature, can be seen.

Occasionally some people appear twice in these censuses because they might be listed at one address, and then be a visitor at another house. A few people avoided being listed at all. In the 1841 census, the painter William Turner deliberately rowed a boat into the Thames on census night, so he could not be counted as being present at any property.

The records for the 1931 census were destroyed in an accidental fire at Hayes in 1942. The 1941 census was cancelled due to the war.

Historical censuses are held by the National Archives at Kew, but can now also be accessed online. Each census is subject to the hundred year rule, which means that the information cannot be released publicly for a century. The next to be made available will be the 1921 census, in January 2022.

The 1939 Register

When WW2 seemed inevitable the government, needing to establish exactly who was living in the country and their whereabouts, enacted the National Registration Act, 1939. This established a National Register to be compiled for the issue of identity cards, and then ration books. It was also useful when the National Health Service was introduced in 1948.

The survey took place on September 29, 1939, just after the outbreak of the war. It was a kind of census, but does not include military personnel, and contains one very useful item of information - each person’s date of birth. In the decadal censuses only their age is recorded.

The 1939 Register is available on-line. It is particularly valuable to those who are interested in family history, as their parents and/or grandparents will probably be recorded. But do not expect to find yourself in there, as all information about people who are less than 100 years old has been redacted unless that the person’s death has been registered.

If you search the 1939 Register for the local area you may come up with a few surprises. For example, I found that in my parent’s household in Cressex Road there was not only myself as a toddler (but redacted) but also two other people, one of whom had also been redacted. The person whose identity can seen was the 19 year old Gordon Melville Rees, who was listed as a student. Rees became a musician and songwriter. Although not exactly a household name he is best known for co-writing with the “Forces sweetheart” Vera Lyn her highly successful song My Son, My Son.

Another surprise, which was brought to my attention by reader John Hills, was to find that the WW2 codebreaker Alan Turing was recorded at a local address. He was staying at a house called “Courn’s Wood” (now known as “Cournswood House”) in Clappins Lane, near Naphill.

Property Censuses

After Domesday in 1086, King Edward I commissioned in 1279 a survey of landholdings known as the Hundred Rolls.

There followed surveys of different types of property, such as the Poll Taxes in the 14th century and the Hearth Taxes in the 17th century. These were limited to people who could afford to own such property, and there were many exemptions.

It was over 600 years after Domesday before another property survey was carried out by the government which covered the whole population, the 1910 Valuation Survey. In the early 20th century much land was still owned by a privileged few, who often got richer as their land increased in value with no effort on their part. The increase occurred not just because of inflation but from improving the infrastructure with new roads, street lighting, schools etc, all paid for by the public purse. This was beginning to be seen by many people as a social injustice.

The 1910 survey was carried out between 1910 and 1915 and was a review of land and property in England and Wales that recorded nine million houses and farms across the land. The information recorded included the dimensions and value of the property, how it was used, and the name of the occupier and the owner.

Census and Protest

In 1911 some Suffragettes protested about not having the vote, by trying to avoid being on the census or by writing political slogans on it. Princess Sophia Duleep Singh, was a Punjabi Maharajah’s daughter who later lived at Colehatch House in Penn. She did not complete the census but wrote: ‘No vote, no census, as women do not count, they refuse to be counted.’

Another suffragette who lived in Penn from 1926 -1950, at St John’s Orchard in Manor Rd, was Muriel Matters. She did not complete the required details on the 1911 census form, but gave her name and address and defaced it with the words, written in large capitals. “No Vote, No Census”. In smaller writing she added “As I’m not a person under the franchise laws, I’m not a person for census purposes”.

Fill in your census

The 2021 census is due on Sunday March 21. It can be completed online, or you can ask for a form to complete.