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20 April 2014
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Working Life and the First Modern Census

By Geoff Timmins
Image of working family

In response to rapid population growth, the government commissioned the first modern census in 1801. The records show that Britain's working practices changed dramatically during the 19th century, and that the changes varied greatly throughout the land.

Job changes and job records

During the 18th century, more and more families in Britain came to earn a living from industrial work rather than from agricultural work. And this trend continued in the 19th century, although work providing services rather than in making goods rose to prominence. At the same time, the country's population increased more rapidly than ever before, a marked upturn in the rate of growth occurring from the late 1700s. As a result, a far greater number of people were involved in making manufactured goods in early Victorian times than had been the case in early Georgian times.

'...the gloomy Thomas Malthus predicted that, unless checked, such rapid population growth would outstrip food supplies...'

The rapidity of population growth from the late 18th century caused a great deal of interest at the time and brought no little anxiety. Thus the gloomy Thomas Malthus predicted that, unless checked, such rapid population growth would outstrip food supplies, leading to starvation. In the event this did not happen, but concern about population growth led to the first national census of Britain's population taking place in 1801.

Since then, censuses have been taken every ten years, except during 1941 when wartime disruption occurred. The early censuses give some information on occupations and hence on how people earned a living. But it is only from 1841 that detail of the occupations of individuals rather than of groups of people is given.

This crucial change arose because, for the first time, households were issued with forms (or schedules) on which they were legally required to record details of everyone who stayed in the household on census night. In 1851, the schedules required fuller information, including occupations. This information was usually collected by local people.



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