The Origins of the Census in 1801

The Census was first taken in 1801 but the returns were made by the local vicar, or some other prominent person. People did not fill in their own returns. Many could not have done so as they could not read or write. In any case the Government was not much interested in individuals. It just wanted how many men there were in four different groups. These were:-

People of independent means
Agricultural Labourers

Britain had recently lost the American Colonies and America had declared her Independence in 1776. Now, less than thirty years later, there was a threat that America would develop into a great manufacturing nation, as indeed she did, and Britain wanted to prevent engineers from emigrating to America. Whitney, the founder of the great American agricultural machinery firm and eventually Pratt and Whitney engine manufacturers, was one of the thousands who emigrated. To do so he had to dress up in an agricultural smock and left England carrying a shepherd's crook.

The local vicar sent in his census returns to London in the four categories. They were compiled as a set of statistics and the originals thrown away. Therefore we have no details about individuals in the early days. In 1841 the first Census Returns showing individual households and their members, with ages and other details was taken. These are the first people we can research as individuals. Slowly extra questions were asked, so later returns tell us more and the census returns opened a new source of study.  

How one school used the Census.

The Census was always about numbers. Numbers of people, their ages, sex, occupations, etc. so the people who collected these facts were Enumerators (numberers) and the small counting areas were Enumeration Districts. The returns are published in Districts and at the start of each one is a list of the roads in that district, so that one can outline it on a map.

The Site of a School in Oakington Road, Maida Vale, London

This school was built after the Second World War, on a bomb site. This part of the 1881 Census included the houses which were bombed and the others nearby. The houses had been built in the late 1870s and were occupied in time for the 1881 Census so it was an interesting source of study for the pupils in the school.

This is the first page of the Enumeration District which happens to have the School in its centre and shows the roads and households which had to be counted by this particular enumerator.


Enumeration District No. 25, 1881

The same site 1970,showing the
new school built on the bomb site

Filling Up The Census, Punch

By this time people filled in their own census forms but some seem to find it a puzzle.

From The Growth of St Marylebone & Paddington p.94

Today the old census returns can tell us a great deal about populations in particular streets and sometimes the complete census returns for a street can reveal mass movements



These new houses had been occupied in time for the 1881 Census, so we can analyze where everyone came from. Enumeration District No. 25, 1881 (Kensington St Mary) includes a short length of Elgin Avenue and the end roads of the Neeld Estate. These householders were pioneers, gathered to fill these new London streets from many directions, as the census returns show.


There are 47 sheets of Census Returns in this enumeration district, with 1,175 persons listed. Of these, 194 (16.5 %) of the Heads of Houses were born in Wiltshire, or counties west of this, or in South Wales, and would probably have arrived in Paddington by the Great Western Railway.

The tendency in London was for people to want to move out towards the West, into the prevailing wind and away from the industrial smog of the East End and the Lea Valley. If there was work available locally, the newcomers would have preferred to stay there, rather than go east into the pollution. And there was work, for the big shops of Kensington required large numbers of assistants and specialist workers to provide the goods and services which they offered. The census shows railway-men, as one would expect, but also dressmakers, a trunk buyer, a hosier's clerk, tailors, woollen drapers, warehousemen, silk buyers, a mantle cutter, upholsterers, and other people who must have served in the prosperous new shopping centres of Kensington and Knightsbridge.

The shops gave employment to a huge range of specialists, many of whom would have been very polite, neatly dressed, not well paid but in fairly regular employment, and highly respectable. The area probably contrasted sharply with the unskilled and casually employed of parts of Lisson Grove on the other side of the Edgware Road.

Of the 194 arrivals from the west, 52 (26.8%) were Heads of Households. Some wives and children too were born in the West Country. So were a surprising number of servants and lodgers who, in their turn, might settle and bring up families. Why did so many people come from the west? W.G.Hoskins, in 'Devon' (part of the New Survey of England, 1954, David & Charles ) says:

'My ancestors were men of no particular eminence even in local history, farmers nearly all of them until the collapse of local communities all over England in the early nineteenth century drove them off the land and into the towns and across the water to the Atlantic continent. But these were the sort of people who formed the foundations of any stable society.'

The 1881 Census shows that some of those who left Devon settled in Paddington. They got off the train and made new lives where they stood. Just as the East End of London housed the refugees from Russia and Poland; King's Cross attracted the Scots; and Euston/Camden Town housed the Irish; so Paddington seems to have attracted many of the migrants from the West Country. These quotations from Hoskins seem relevant:

  ‘Of the outward migrants in 1851, who amounted to thirteen per cent of those born in Devon, exactly half went to London." --- "Between 1861 and 1901 it has been calculated that 208 small parishes fell in numbers by anything up to sixty per cent. Of those who left the county, most went to London, but in the eighteen seventies and eighties there developed a steady trickle overseas to the colonies and to the United States, helped to some extent by the cut-rates of the Atlantic shipping companies and by the railway rate-war on the other side'.

One family in Oakington Road started by going to Canada where one child was born, to the United States for the birth of the second, and to Paddington for the birth of the third.

The census migrations led to other questions. Why was there an agricultural slump in the 1870s to cause this sudden movement of people? What caused the agricultural slump of the 1870s which drove people to Paddington?

The migration to London from the countryside was caused by events on the other side of the World. In the USA they were opening up the West aggressively. In 1855 the Vicar of St Mary's, Stoke Newington, gave a lecture in which he said:-

“It is said that in North America, the line of civilization stretches further and further into the west at a rate of fifteen miles a year. The remotest backwoodsman, who now stands on the frontier of civilized life, finds himself twelve months hence, fifteen miles within the boundary.”

The wheat belt stretched ever further west and the vast amounts of grain coming onto the market reduced the price. British farmers began to find it difficult to compete. Then a new thing happened. Russians were living under a cruel regime where there was no freedom of thought or action. The promise of free land and a new life in America was irresistible. Pieces of land half-a-mile square, were free to those who could work them and survive. A flood of Russians left Odessa carrying with them the clothes they stood up in and a sack of seed wheat. They would plant this wheat, open up their plots, and begin a new life.

People had come to America from all directions, but the Russians brought with them their own wheat. America had been planted with wheat from Britain and Europe, but Russian wheat had been selected over centuries to survive in Russian conditions. Long frozen winters and blazing summer heat, exactly the conditions of the American West and North. Rapidly this red wheat carried the wheat belts in America north and the fertile prairies opened up as a vast grain store. British farmers could not compete in price and, in the 1870s, there was an agricultural slump. Farm labourers were forced into the towns and Paddington, with many other towns, expanded.

People did not come only from the west. In Elgin Avenue there are people from France, perhaps refugees from the 1870 France Prussian War. If so, they were not the first to flee from France. Isambard Marc Brunel fled from the French Revolution to New York where he became the Chief Engineer. Later he came to Britain and set up the block making machinery for the Navy, the first mass production line in the World. He introduced Orthographic Projection to Britain from France, where it had been a state secret for thirty years. (see Graphic Communication, by Jack Whitehead, 1985).

His son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, builder of the Great Western Railway, was also one of the greatest engineers Britain has ever had. So the man who built the Great Western Railway, which brought so many people to Paddington, was himself a first generation Englishman, largely educated in France, and is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery with Thackeray and Trollope, two most English of men. In 2006 he was voted the Most Important Englishman (or some such title) in a TV Quiz. Nobody, so far as I know, mentioned that he was a first generation Englishman. So much for the nonsense talked about immigrants being a threat.


Plotting the inward migration to Paddington in the 1870s.

The early census returns show where people were born and this can be plotted.

A scatter map showing where the first people in Oakington Road came from.

From The Growth of St Marylebone & Paddington p.95


Another Example of Using the Census

The Census can compare the sort of people who lived in a particular street at different periods. This is an example from Stoke Newington.

Paradise Row is a very desirable part of Stoke Newington Church Street, overlooking Clissold Park and, early on, the open water of the New River. Now the river has been covered. The 1851 Census shows that only wealthy people could have hoped to live there.

1851 Census

In Paradise Place – Heads of houses included:-

  • Tailor & Draper, aged 59;
  • Linen draper and silk mercer, 49
  • Retired surveyor, 64
  • Superintendent of Life Insurance Soc., 76
  • Merchant, 46
  • Paradise Villa had a Barrister in practice, 37
  • Bill Broker, 48
  • Linen Merchant, 48
  • Retired wine merchant, 71
  • Auctioneer's wife, 39
  • Mahogany broker's wife, 43
  • Wholesale draper, 69
  • Retired corn trader, 63
  • Gentleman, 62
  • Accountant, 72
  • Chemist, 55
  • Fund-holder, 68

1 Glebe Place: Retired officer East India Company, 54

2 Glebe Place: Gun manufacturer employing 150 men, 27boys,

3 Glebe Place: Fund-holder, 61,

4 Glebe Place: Widow of retired pattern designer

Glebe field: Labourer and his wife

Four houses building

The Rectory, Wilson Taylor, Rector.


The price of the houses, in the currency of the day, was sky high.

By 1900, Industry had moved into the area. The large gardens behind the Church Street houses were covered with factories and some of the houses themselves became workshops. The Census of 1901 would tell a very different story from 1851.

Later, in the 1930s and 1960s, large blocks of flats were built so that the situation changed again. It is still a fine place to live but the population has altered completely. By 2000 much of industry has gone and the area is almost entirely residential. The old factory area, now largely empty, is designated at some time in the future to be covered with flats. Later census returns, which will be opened within the lifetimes of some people reading this, will tell more of the story, but it will never be up to date because of the hundred year privacy rule. All census returns are sealed for 100 years, so that almost everyone who appears on them will be dead before they are opened and their privacy will have been respected.

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last revised: January 7, 2013 8:47 AM