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Understanding the Nineteenth-Century Census

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Teacher's Guide

The purpose of this Unit is to introduce students to the nineteenth century census. The text, exercises and explorations allow students to look at the historical background to the setting up of a population census for Britain, to see how the census was taken, to consider what was asked in the census and why this changed over time. The strengths and weaknesses of the census are also considered. The text also allows students to understand how both nineteenth-century government agencies and present-day historians have used census information. Exercises and explorations allow students to look at various aspects of the census and to test its reliability. The use of small databases from the censuses of 1851 and 1881 allows students to consider the advantages and possible pitfalls of sampling techniques as well as helping them place the census process in historical context.

Key Questions for the Unit

1. Why was a census of population introduced in Britain in 1801?

2. How was the process of census taking organised?

3. How and why did the contents of the census change over time?

4. What contemporary purposes was the census used for?

5. How reliable is nineteenth-century census data?

6. For what purposes and in what ways have historians used the nineteenth-century census?

Historical Background to Preston and the Gorbals and Sandyford districts of Glasgow

Glasgow was one of the fastest growing cities in the world during the nineteenth-century. Between 1780 and 1851 the city's population rose from 43,000 to 357,00. By 1881, its population was 587,000. Glasgow was not a capital city, and may not have had the status of cities such as London or Paris, but it enjoyed rapid employment growth. This was related to industrial and commercial development within the city and in the whole of the west of Scotland. By the 1850s, Glasgow's period of great success in the textile industry was gradually being replaced by newer opportunities in engineering and other heavy industry. Also, by the middle of the century, the main port activities for the West of Scotland had been moved to the deepened River Clyde within Glasgow itself. This brought new opportunities for casual employment in the type of unskilled service sector work that encouraged migrants and immigrants into the city.

(i) - The Gorbals

The Gorbals district is situated on the south side of the River Clyde, opposite Glasgow's city centre. Gorbals was originally a village on the outskirts of the city and was only fully absorbed as a suburb in 1846. However, it was already an area of over-crowded, run-down housing where the predominantly working-class population lived cheek-by-jowl with factories and industrial units. By the middle decades of the century, the Gorbals had become the most notorious British slum, partly because of the grimness of the high-density tenement housing. Tenements are three to four storey buildings. Each storey of the tenement would contain several flats reached via a common entrance and stairway; water supply, outside toilets and back-court areas were communally shared.

The spread of industry brought a greater population into the area, leading to increased house occupancy and greater congestion in the narrow streets of old Gorbals - particularly the street known as Malta Street in the 1851 census. The traffic congestion and the overcrowded, unhealthy housing meant that Malta Street was one of the streets targeted by Glasgow's City Improvements Trust (founded in 1866 to transform the worst areas of slum housing). Malta Street (which features in our 1851 sample database) was totally reconstructed as a wider, through street (becoming an extension of Norfolk Street) by private developers between 1873 and 1876. Thus, while Gorbals as a whole was becoming more densely occupied and going down socially between 1851 and 1881, the sample area had actually substantially improved and had less dense housing in 1881 compared to 1851.

(ii) - Sandyford
In stark contrast to the Gorbals, Sandyford was a prosperous section of Glasgow in the mid to late nineteenth-century, situated in the expanding middle-class area of substantial houses being built westwards from the city centre from the 1840s. Sandyford's surroundings were vastly different to the Gorbals. There were no factories, only other high quality housing and a large public park, Kelvingrove Park, to the north and west of the district.

Sandyford provided residence for some of the middle class families who were fleeing the rapid population rise in the city centre and the overcrowding and unhealthy living conditions with which such population rise was associated. This pattern was repeated in city centres around Britain as merchants, shopkeepers and professionals removed their families and headed west away from the increasingly unhealthy and over-crowded central districts. Most of the Sandyford houses were two-storey terraces with basement, gardens and outhouses: although there were also some large tenement flats.

Yet, Sandyford's residential status was in decline by the end of the nineteenth-century. This downward trend was already well under way by the time of the 1881 census. In the 1870s further building in the district was of a lower standard then previously. More dense tenements began to fill up the free land to the south. This lead to an increase in the amount of through traffic in the district, meanwhile suburbanisation was spreading farther west. Sandyford was a highly prosperous part of Glasgow, which was, however, falling in social standing by 1881.

(iii) Preston was one of several Lancashire towns; others were Blackburn and Burnley, which grew during the nineteenth-century as a result of the development of cotton manufacturing in the area. Before industrial development Preston had been an important Lancashire market town and also had a port. However, the cotton industry soon became by far the dominant employer.

The population of Preston grew from 12,00 in 1801 to 34,000 in 1831, to 69, 542 in 1851 and 97,000 in 1881. The population of Preston reached six figures in 1891 when it stood at 108,000. These figures show that Preston contained around one-sixth of the population of Glasgow. However, in relative terms there was a great rise in the Preston population during the nineteenth-century, for example, the population doubled in the twenty years between 1831-1851. This population increase brought over-crowding and associated sanitary problems. Preston housing was generally of the two-story cottage type. Often these were built back-to back with no common court for water supply and waste deposit. Other Preston inhabitants lived in damp cellar dwellings. Preston housing stock was characterised by high occupancy rates and little spare housing capacity.

Preston's reliance on the cotton trade made the population susceptible to high unemployment rates during trade depressions. In the mid-nineteenth century these were worst in the late 1840s, mid 1850s and during the 'Cotton Famine' of 1861 which was triggered by the outbreak of the American Civil War.

(Place of publication is London unless otherwise stated)

Works cited in unit:

Michael Anderson Family Structure in Nineteenth Century Lancashire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971) [0 521 08237 4]

D.V. Glass Numbering the People: the eighteenth-century population controversy and the development of vital statistics in Britain (Farnborough: Saxon House, 1973) [0 347 00200 5]

Edward Higgs A Clearer Sense of the Census (HMSO, 1996) [0 11 440257 4]

E. Mawdsley et al ed. History and Computing III: Historians, Data and Computers (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990) [0 7190 3211 3]

E. Mawdsley and T. Munck Computing for Historians: an introductory guide (Manchester: Manchester University press, 1993), [0 7190 3548 1]

T.S. and M.B. Simey Charles Booth - Social Scientist (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1960)

E.A. Wrigley ed. nineteenth-century Society: essays in the use of quantitative methods for the study of social data (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972) [0 521 08412 1]


Other useful works on the census:

C. Booth 'Occupations of the people in the United Kingdom, 1801-81' Journal of the Statistical Society of London XLIX (1886), pp. 314-444

M.J. Cullen The Statistical Movement in Early Victorian Britain: the foundation of empirical social research (Hassocks, 1975)

J.M. Eyler Victorian Social Medicine: the ideas and methods of William Farr (1979)

E. Higgs Making Sense of the Census: the manuscript returns for England and Wales, 1801-1901 (HMSO, 1989)

E. Higgs 'Domestic Servants and Households in Victorian England' Social History 8 (1983), 203-10

E. Higgs 'Women, Occupations and Work in the nineteenth-century Censuses' History Workshop Journal 23 (1987), 59-80

E. Higgs 'Disease, Febrile Poisons and Statistics: the census as a medical survey, 1841-1911', Social History of Medicine 4 (1991), 465-78

R. Lawson ed. The Census and Social Structure (1978)

D. Mills and K. Schurer Local Communities in the Victorian Census Enumerator's Books (Oxford, 1996)

E.A. Wrigley ed. Identifying People in the Past (1973), 'incompleteness of the 1851 census a case study'. Case of a Manchester man who wrote to the press about his schedule not being collected during the 1851 census. Action seems to have been taken since historians have discovered his census details appear (out of sequence) on the final page of the enumerator's book for his district. Online resources from the nineteenth-century censuses for England, some on Ireland, little on Wales or Scotland.


Potential future exercises linked to this Unit would be for students to undertake the coding of occupation fields. For example, the Preston 1851 database has no occupational coding. This could be carried out along similar lines to the Booth-Armstrong coding used in the Gorbals and Sandyford databases.

Another potential exercise would be for students to explore the possibilities of record linkage between the census and other nineteenth-century primary sources. This could be done through tracking down further details of named individuals in any sample database. Medical doctors give plenty of scope for record linkage.

In this Unit, the exercise on medical disabilities in Section 4 identified a household in the 1881 Sandyford sample which recorded a family member as 'insane'. This was the 'household resident at 23 Sandyford Place. William W. Midleton aged 38, was recorded as insane. William's 28 year-old brother was George S. Midleton, a medical practitioner. This household is an interesting example to choose, because untypically, the head of the household is female, Isabella Midleton, a widow aged 62.

By linking the census information to entries under George Midleton's name and address in the Medical Directory (which lists all qualified medical practitioners in Great Britain and Ireland) much more can be discovered about George Stevenson Middleton (sic). (The error in the enumeration of his surname is also worth some attention in terms of considering census reliability).

Fortunately for illustrative purposes, George Middleton had a long and rather illustrious medical career in Glasgow. For example, the 1882 Medical Directory records that his qualifications were MA (Hons) Aberdeen, MB and CM Glasgow (1876). In 1882, Middleton was a member of the Glasgow Medico-Chirurgical Society and of the Pathological and Clinical Society of Glasgow. He was Assistant to the Professor of the Practice of Medicine at Glasgow University. He was also Resident Physician at Glasgow Western Infirmary and Resident Surgeon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. The 1882 entry also noted that Middleton formerly held posts as Medical Superintendent at the Joint Fever Hospital Maryhill, Glasgow and as a Physician at Anderson's College Dispensary. His entry also recorded his publication of an article in the Glasgow Medical Journal in 1879 and in the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology in 1880.

Middleton's 1891 Medical Directory entry records that his address has changed to 19 Sandyford Place (this minor change of address meant there would be no precise continuity in census returns for the Middleton household). It also records that Middleton obtained his MD (highly commended) from Glasgow University in 1884. By this time Middleton had also served as President of the Glasgow University Medico-Chirurgical Society and as Secretary of the Medical Section of the oldest Glasgow professional medical society, the Glasgow Medico-Chirurgical Society. He had also obtained a further medical appointment as Extra Physician at the Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow and had three further medical articles published, including one in the International Journal of Medicine in 1887 and one in the Lancet in 1889.

Later Medical Directory entries show Middleton rising further through the Glasgow medical profession. He gained fellowship of the Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow in 1893, and published a book entitled Clinical Records from the Royal Infirmary of Glasgow in 1894. In 1899 when his new address was recorded as 8 Woodside Place, Glasgow, Middleton was President of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Glasgow. In 1901 he was Editor of Glasgow Hospital Reports and his 1907 Medical Directory entry records that he had been an Examiner in Medicine for Commissions to the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), presumably during the Boer War.

During the First World War, Middleton was awarded an honorary doctorate (LLD) at Glasgow University and served as President of Association of Physicians of Great Britain and Ireland. Towards the end of the war, Middleton served as Lieutenant Colonel in the (4th Scottish General Hospital) RAMC Territorials. He was also Honorary Consultant Physician at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow and at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. In 1926 he was elected an Honorary Fellow at the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons in Glasgow. Middleton retired in 1927 and his last Medical Directory entry was for 1928, he presumably died that year.

All of this information could open up potential investigations into the medical profession and the practise of medicine in late nineteenth and twentieth century Britain. There are many possibilities for further record linkage to find out more about George Middleton. For example, since his address is known for the period 1881-1928 further information can be extracted from five different censuses. Also, much more could be discovered about his professional career by looking at the records of the institutions where he was active. For example, records of the hospitals he worked at, such as Glasgow Royal Infirmary, may well offer more insights into his medical career, as would reference to the professional organisations in which he was involved. For example, he served as President of the Medico-Chirurgical Society of Glasgow in 1899 and was a fellow of the Faculty (now Royal College) of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow. The records of all of these organisations are freely available in Glasgow archives. Finally, since he was a hospital consultant with a long career of medical service, it is quite possible that his obituary would have appeared in at least the Glasgow Medical Journal, or possibly even the Lancet or British Medical Journal.

Copyright JLM Jenkinson