FEATURE6 November 2019

Mapping the nation

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Conducted once a decade, the census maps the population and provides vital insight for researchers and the government, but may soon cease to exist in its current form. Katie McQuater explores the past, present and future of the national survey.

Mapping the nation 2

The first census in Britain was conducted in the Gaelic kingdom of Dalriada, on the west coast of Scotland, in the seventh century. Senchus fer n-Alban (The history of the men of Scotland) differed vastly from modern censuses in that its aim was to gather records for military and tax purposes, not to inform statistics about the nation.

Better known is the next effort to record the population – the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086. Again, the survey was taken to determine what tax revenue the king could extract from his subjects.

More than 700 years later, after over-population fears were stoked when Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population, the first modern census for England and Wales was conducted in 1801. In the UK, the census has taken place every decade since, with only one exception during World War II.

Today, censuses do more than simply count the population. They offer the most detailed snapshot of a ...