The census is not just about counting people. It has also thrown up valuable information about how society in the U.K. has changed over the years.

Our postie had to knock on the front door a few days ago because the packet she had to deliver was too large to go through the letter box. Presumably she and her colleagues had to do the same thing at every house, because the packet was something that was going to all.

It was in fact a household questionnaire, sent by the Office for National Statistics, for completion for the 2011 census. It is a 32-page document, containing 14 ‘household' questions and 43 personal questions (plus a few more for visitors staying in a house on census day). Each individual living in the household has to answer the 43 questions (and they are repeated for persons two, three, four, five and six). Census day is March 27, and the questions apply to that specific day. Completing the census form is a legal obligation, with fines possible for anyone failing to participate.

Background

The first official census of England and Wales took place in March 1801. At that time, when many people were illiterate, the information was collected from each household by “the Overseers of the Poor, aided by constables, tithingmen, headboroughs and other officers of the peace”. (In Scotland, the role was filled by schoolmasters.)

The 1801 census showed that the whole population of Great Britain was nine million. Now, London's population is about 7,500,000. Since 1801 there has been a census every 10 years (except for 1941, when the Second World War was at its height).

It is generally held that the first modern census came in 1841, when the Registrar General of England and Wales, holder of a newly created post, was made responsible for organising it. The actual counting was carried out by local officers of the new registration service.

Over the years, questions have been added, and others removed. This year, we were intrigued to find that question 17 “is intentionally left blank”. Then my wife discovered that in Wales question 17 asks “do you speak Welsh?” It was presumably more economical not to design and print different documents for Wales and the rest of the country.

At the time of the 1961 census we were living on a canal boat, and had no mains water supply, but had to fill our roof tank by hosepipe. One of the questions on that occasion, put to every tenth person, if my memory is correct, was about water supply, and we much enjoyed answering, wholly accurately, that we had five taps but no mains water.

Dramatic change

The fact is that, over the two centuries of the census, it has provided insight into a period of dramatic change in United Kingdom society. The U.K. has moved from being a largely rural and agricultural economy, through the Industrial Revolution, which transformed it into one of the world's leading industrial countries, to the present high-tech reality.

There has been, too, the transformation from imperial power – and the association, which many still find it difficult to accept, with Europe. And there have been huge demographic changes, to the point where Britain is a truly multi-cultural society (however much our politicians wrap that reality in obfuscatory politically correct jargon).

There is no doubt that over two centuries the census has produced a great wealth of extremely valuable information. On the face of it, therefore, the answer to the question whether it should continue ought to be a resounding yes. It is not, however, quite as simple as that.

Ephemeral

Some people are reluctant to complete the census form, not just because it is tedious, but also because of the fear of a “big brother” state. It is not easy to enforce the legal obligation to complete for various reasons, not least the fact there is far more mobility in the population that there was half a century ago. And that fact, of course, means that the snapshot of census day is more ephemeral than it used to be.

In addition, modern methods of gathering and processing information must surely mean that delivering 32-page documents to every household begins to look outmoded. (In 1961, on our boat, we did not at first receive a form, until I telephoned to say that I insisted on being counted. My reward, or punishment, I am sure was to become a tenth person.)

I must admit that there may now be better ways of doing things. Whatever new methods are introduced, however, I believe there is a strong case for ensuring that the 2011 census is not the last.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. E-mail: bill.kirkman@gmail.com

Keywords: census