Bulldog burners and dungboys: classifying occupations in British censuses (1841-1911)

With Census Day 2011 nearly upon us, Edward Higgs reveals how Britain's statisticians met the Herculean challenge of producing an accurate survey of the working population in the 19th century

Machines produce the final statistics for a census, c1931. From 1841, censuses helped the government calculate everything from the size and distribution of the population to the contrasting death rate in each of the hundreds of occupations. (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the March 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

The taking of a census is probably the biggest single administrative exercise carried out by a modern state, with this year’s British version projected to cost nearly half a billion pounds. Much the same could be said of the 2011 census’s Victorian and Edwardian predecessors. However, the census-taking authorities of that period lacked both a permanent organisation and also modern computer systems.

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