First Census and the Demographic Transition

The late eighteenth century marked a period of intense demographic changes in Britain. Having remained relatively stable at 5.1 million through the seventeenth century, the British population reached eight million at the end of the following century. Mortality crises caused by widespread disease (plague) and agricultural dearth was notably less frequent by this time and contributed in its absence to the population boom. The rising prominence of the industrial sector in the economy, too, was linked to the demographic growth of the period. Many citizens participated in the mass transition from finding work in the agricultural, trades, and cottage industry to that in the large-scale mineral processing and consumer goods industry. Evidently, Britain’s ‘dual economy’ of the feudal-industrial order shifted from a 90-10 percentage split in 1760 to a remarkable 50-50 in 1830.

Of course, the hallmarks of progress did not come without their underlying currents of unease. As Britain began to undertake a heightened consumer revolution and unprecedented numbers in the wage labor force, government agencies, social scientists of a budding field, and everyday citizens alike internalized growing concerns about the exploding population. The wary wave of thought affected perspective on the sustainability of traditional parish-based welfare, structures of poverty, the inevitability of famine, and other issues.  In 1798, Thomas Malthus published his fears that spoke for a generation: An Essay on the Principle of Population. Following Malthus’s publication, the Parliament enacted the Census Act of 1800 to place matters of accounting for and regulating demographic changes in governing hands—in the form of a ten-year census collection cycle. 1801 saw the distribution of the first ever census in Britain.

Fideler, Paul. Social Welfare in Pre-Industrial England: The Old Poor Law Tradition. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. Print.

Office for National Statistics United Kingdom. Focus on People and Migration. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Accessed web version 21 Jan. 2018.

Timmins, Geoff. “Working Life and the First Modern Census.” BBC History. Last updated 18 Sept. 2014. Accessed 21 Jan. 2018. Web.

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