Census 2021 – history in the making

Another first is about to happen in March with the digital-first census in 2021 but when was the first census, why was it taken and what use has it served and will serve in the future?

The census is a head count of everyone in the country on a given day. A census has been taken in England and Wales, and separately for Scotland, every ten years since 1801, with the exception of 1941, due to WW2.

In 1801 to 1831, the government basically wanted to know the number of people in each area, their sex and age groups. The government was not bothered about personal details, just statistics. Sometimes the enumerator took down more details but this is a rare occurrence. This changed in 1841, when the names of people in each household were included together with information about each person.  Thereafter more information was added each decade.

How the census was taken in the past?

In the week preceding census night, the appointed enumerator delivered the forms to all households in an Enumeration District (approximately 500 people). Censuses did not strictly follow county boundaries. The first page of each District states the route taken. Everyone who slept in the house that night had to be included, even if it wasn’t their permanent home. No person absent was included so salesmen, for example, were included in the census where they lodged on their journey. Census dates are important and vary but they were taken on a Sunday as the night when most people would be at home. Earlier in the year is preferred, since 1851, because many people helped with harvesting in the summer and daylight was always needed for enumerators to carry out their rounds. Forms were filled in for anyone who was unable to read and/or write and there are often many spelling mistakes and some names spelled differently.

On the Monday the forms were collected. The information was then transferred to the Enumerator’s books. The General Record Office compiled the statistics. The date for our 2021 census is Sunday 21 March. For more information, please follow these links:



The Release of the 1921 Census

There is a 100 year closure for freedom of information and data protection reasons for the full household census returns so that the last census to be released was the 1911 in 2012. In 2022 the 1921 census will be released on Findmypast to which Bradford Libraries already have a subscription. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/about/news/contract-awarded-to-publish-the-1921-census-online/

However, a Register was taken in 1939 and this provides some householder information. It is not a full census. https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/1939-register/  

To obtain free access to historical censuses and the 1939 Register, Bradford Libraries have provided free use of Ancestry from your own home during lockdown. Please follow these instructions:

To access Ancestry Library you will need a Bradford Libraries membership card.

Go to https://www.bradford.gov.uk/libraries247  and join the library and/or log in to your library account with your card number and pin. Remember to input just the numbers. Next, click on the special link to Ancestry Library Edition.

How useful is the information collected?

Census returns can be used for social and economic historical research for the Victorian period. As they also give place of birth, they can be used for the study of migration, for trades and occupations, and of course for household and family structures. They are a must for family history and house history researchers and can be used in the study of town and village growth and development.

Why we should take part most especially in 2021.

As a thorough analysis of population the census helps determine social needs and future development. Census information helps plan and fund services in your own area including healthcare, education and transport. It is also used by charities for funding arrangements and businesses for market research and start-up and so impacts on job opportunities. After Covid,  the 2021 census will have particular importance.

To learn more about the census in 2021 please follow these links:

In Bradford: https://www.bradford.gov.uk/browse-all-news/press-releases/working-together-to-deliver-a-successful-census-2021/

 Nationally:   https://census.gov.uk/about-the-census/

Initiative for Bradford Secondary School Students to contribute


Gina Birdsall, Keighley Local Studies Library

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