Content associated with: Enumeration abstract, 1801    Page 40

Census date

Matthew Woollard

The census date is the temporal reference-point for which the information gathered is to relate. In order to successfully carry out a census the census date should be fixed as a single date to prevent the effects of the movement of population and indeed it should be fixed for a particular moment in time to prevent the effects of births and deaths. From 1841 onwards the census date has fallen on a Sunday in an attempt to find the majority of people at home.

Many of the Acts of Parliament for censuses in the British Isles censuses specify that the reference-point is simply "…on the Night of …" a particular date. However in practice the census authorities during this period attempted to enforce greater specificity, and the precise moment at which the census is supposed to refer to is midnight of a specified date. This has led to some confusion by some commentators as midnight of a particular date can be defined as either the first or the final moment of any particular day. Thus when the Act specifies that only those present "on the Night of Sunday the Thirtieth Day of the said Month of March" should be enumerated this was interpreted as the last moment of the thirtieth day of March. In some later publications the census moment is given as a date span.

Further confusion has been caused by the fact that many of the relevant Acts of Parliament have specified the day on which enumerators should visit houses to collect schedules rather than the date on which the information should be current. For example, the Act for taking an Account of the Population of Ireland in 1851 (13 & 14 Vict. c.44) states "That such Officers and Men of the Police Force of Dublin Metropolis, and of the Constabulary Force...shall, upon the Thirty-first Day of March and One or more next consecutive Days in the Year One thousand eight hundred and fifty-one,...severally visit every House within such Districts...". The thirty-first of March 1851 was a Monday, and the census reference point was in fact deemed to be the midnight which spanned the 30th and the 31st of March. Indeed, the householders' schedule for both Ireland and England stated that a record should be made of those "who slept or abode in this House on the night of Sunday, the 30th March, 1851."

The Act for England and Wales for the same year (13 & 14 Vict. c.53.) is slightly more explicit. It stated: "That upon Monday the Thirty-first Day of March in the Year One thousand eight hundred and fifty-one every such Enumerator...shall visit every House within his District...and shall take an Account in Writing of the Name, Sex, Age, and Occupation of every living Person who abode therein on the Night of Sunday the Thirtieth Day of the said Month of March." Between 1841 and 1911 all the censuses taken in the British Isles were taken on the same day. A complete list of the dates on which the censuses between 1801 and 1931 (1937 for Northern Ireland) were taken is given below.

The precise timing of the census would seem to have been a matter of some consideration within Britain. The months of March and April were generally chosen because this was considered to be the cross-over point between maximum daylight and minimal residential mobility. Any earlier in the year and there would not have been enough daylight for the enumerator to carry out his rounds; any later in the year and many people would have been absent from their homes for various reasons, including harvesting and holidaying. A letter in The Times of 16 April 1841 (Page 6 col e) from 'A Hertfordshire Farmer' asks why the months June to August should be used for the census because the rural population "have left their homes for the purpose of getting in the harvest, and are sleeping in outhouses and in the fields" and might be incorrectly recorded. Furthermore this farmer suggested that the "vast influx of labourers from Ireland and elsewhere at that period of the year opposes still further obstacles to a correct return." Some of the accuracy of the 1801 census of Scotland may be compromised by the fact that it was supposed to be taken "as soon as possible" after the 10th March 1801. John Rickman in his observations on that census explained that this occurred because "it was not certain that all Parts of the Country would be easily accessible so early in the Year." (Enumeration Abstract, 1801, p.3).

The fact that from 1851 onwards the census was taken at around the time of the beginning of the fiscal year (taken to be April 6) should not be completely discounted as a reason for the census taking place at this time rather than a period of similar light in September. The issue of seasonal movements has not been lost on historians (Whyman) and the Registrar General and his subordinates. Indeed the impact of taking a census at the beginning of the holiday season in 1921 necessitated the Registrar General publishing an appendix to the Report suggesting the percentage alterations needed to be made in some places to account for the non-resident population. For example, In the Urban District of Frinton, the Registrar General estimated that the population had been inflated by some 34 per cent because of non-resident visitors. (Census of England and Wales, 1921, General Report, 198–201).

The earliest censuses in Great Britain were taken towards the end of May with the exception of the 1801 census which was held to be on 10 March 1801. From 1851 onwards the census has been scheduled to be taken in either early April or late March. The only exception was the 1921 census which was postponed from the 24th April to the 19th June. The Registrar General was rather coy in his report surrounding this change of date. In the General Report for the 1921 census it was stated: "It has already been stated that arrangements had been brought to a state of completion with a view to the 1921 census being taken on the 24th April when circumstances intervened which necessitated its postponement to the 19th June." (Census of England and Wales, 1921, General Report, 11). The circumstances were not as bleak as was thought at the General Register Office, but the possibility of a strike by railwaymen and transport workers was in the air throughout March of 1921. This potential strike was occasioned by the crisis amongst mine workers who were to face a reduction in wages after the government de-controlled mines. The strike didn't occur and Friday 15th April 1921 remains known as Black Friday when the rail and transport unions refused to strike in favour of the mine workers. The GRO was unwilling to take the risk on the basis that the enumeration might not be able to be carried out properly. A draft Order in Council to postpone the Census was submitted to Parliament on the 14th April, and on the 25th April a further Order was submitted substituting the 19th June for the date previously prescribed.

This change of date managed to avoid the "recognised industrial holiday season", but the Register General was clear that "the periodical summer movement" had begun by the 19th June, and that consequently the differences between the 'enumerated' and the 'resident' populations were greater than would have been has the census had been taken in April.

Census dates

England, Wales and Scotland

1801 Monday, 10 March
1811 Monday, 27 May
1821 Monday, 28 May
1831 Monday, 30 May
1841 Sunday, 6 June
1851 Sunday, 30 March
1861 Sunday, 7 April
1871 Sunday, 2 April
1881 Sunday, 3 April
1891 Sunday, 5 April
1901 Sunday, 31 March
1911 Sunday, 2 April
1921 Sunday, 19 June (postponed from Sunday, 24 April)
1931 Sunday, 26 April


1813 Saturday, 1 May 1813 onwards
1821 Monday, 28 May 1821 (onwards)
1831 dates varied from place to place
1841 Sunday, 6 June 1841
1851 Sunday, 30 March
1861 Sunday, 7 April
1871 Sunday, 2 April
1881 Sunday, 3 April
1891 Sunday, 5 April
1901 Sunday, 31 March
1911 Sunday, 2 April
1921 Cancelled. Originally due to be held on Sunday, 24 April

Northern Ireland

1926 Sunday, 18 April
1937 Sunday, 28 February


Census of Great Britain, 1801, Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an Act, passed in the forty-first year of His Majesty King George III. intituled "An act for taking an account of the population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof". Enumeration. Part I. England and Wales. Part II. Scotland BPP 1801–02 VI (9). [View this document: Enumeration abstract, 1801]

Census of England and Wales, 1921. General report with appendices (London: HMSO, 1927). [View this document: General report, England and Wales, 1921]

John Whyman, 'Visitors to Margate in the 1841 census: an attempt to look at the age and social structure of Victorian holiday making', in D. Mills and K. Schürer, eds, Local communities in the Victorian census enumerators' books (Oxford, 1996), 56–69.