In any country, censuses are a basic source for gathering information about the population. From the second half of the eighteenth century onwards there were various attempts to introduce a national census of population in Britain. The existing methods for estimating population totals and trends in the mid to late eighteenth century were limited. They depended mainly on statistics collected for taxation purposes and scattered local population listings. Church parish registers provided much information on baptisms, burials and marriages, but their records covered only those in established Churches, leaving large sections of the population unrecorded, including Dissenters, Roman Catholics and Jews.
Britain was slow to undertake a national census. By the end of the eighteenth century other countries had already initiated periodic national surveys of population, these included Austria, Hungary, Sweden, Spain and the United States which undertook its first census in 1790.
The lack of accurate information about Britain's population led to periodic argument from the 1750s onwards concerning trends in the numbers and growth of population. The traditional view was that a large and increasing population was good for both the production and consumption of British-made goods. However, in the last years of the eighteenth century there was a growing awareness in Britain of population issues, partly brought on by the need to estimate numbers for possible military service in the wars with France. This was coupled with visible evidence of malnutrition suffered by sections of the population due to the harvest failure of 1795. There was a concern too, about Britain's increasing dependence on imported food. Taken together these issues, in the view of some - including Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus whose Essay on the Principle of Population was published in 1798 - suggested that there were dangers to society attendant in increased population.