Census Day! Completing the census through history - Katherine Roberts

Today is the official date of the 10-yearly census in the UK. If you haven't filled in your details ahead of time (and I'm assuming nobody risked doing it early in the middle of a pandemic?), you should do so today, or as soon as possible afterwards. According to the letter I received through the post informing me of my legal responsibilities, I'll need to complete this year's census or risk a £1,000 fine - which is quite a lot smaller than the £10,000 fine for breaking lockdown, I note. I also note that this time around I am expected to complete the census online, whereas ten years ago my letter included a paper form to fill in and return by post. The census being online makes it somehow less official but hopefully it'll be straightforward enough, and at least I won't need to break lockdown to complete it. My elderly father, however (who does not have access to the internet during lockdown because libraries are closed) first needs to phone someone to request a paper form so he can fill that in and and return his in the old-fashioned way. I can only think we are saving trees.

Here's a look at what your experience might have been in less enlightened days.

Babylonia, approx. 4000 BC

First, you'll need to go outside and count up all your sheep, goats, camels, etc. Also, take a good look in your larder to see how much butter, milk, honey and vegetables you have stored away... the Babylonian authorities want to know if (and how much) you're eating. Feeding the entire population is their goal. Full marks to them, and at least they let you go outside.

Egypt, approx. 2500 BC

Pharaoh orders a head count to find out how much manpower is available for building his pyramid, although his officials will probably tell you it's to calculate how to share out all that lovely fertile black mud after the annual Nile flood recedes... you fill this one in at your peril.

Israel, approx 1500 BC

According to the Bible, after the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, God ordered Moses to count the number of healthy males over the age of twenty. 603,550 people were found to be fit for military service in the Israeli army, which is useful to know if you're planning on not turning the other cheek next time.

A little later...

King David decides to its time for a census, but is punished by three days of plague in his country.  Perhaps we should be wary of conducting a census in the middle of a pandemic... on the other hand, it was all over for them in just three days, so it might be worth a try?

Roman Empire, 31 BC - 476 AD

If you are male and live in Rome, you must present yourself at the Campus Martius every five years and tell the officials how many slaves and cattle you own, state your ancestry, and also swear hand on heart if you have a wife. This census is partly used to determine your social class - if you are posh enough, the state will supply you with a horse to ride, which sounds good to me! Mind you, those Romans are a strict lot... if you fail to turn up, you can be seized and sold as a slave yourself so will get counted in someone else's household instead (and they will probably get the horse).

Judea, AD 7

The Roman Governor Quirinus orders a census, for which everyone must travel back to their town of birth to be counted. A carpenter called Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary can't find anywhere to stay in Bethlehem and have to sleep in a stable, where she gives birth to a baby son. Tempted to say it's a good idea to book ahead if you're planning on returning to your place of birth to fill out your census... except, of course, we are still in lockdown so nobody can travel or make holiday plans anyway.

England, 1086

"Here are noted (those) holding lands in Devonshire".

Not an official census as such, but William the Conqueror sets up his tax system after surveying English landowners and their properties and recording them in the Domesday Book.

Mongol Empire, 1250-1270

In return for a slice of your wealth, the descendants of Genghis Khan will promise not to kill you after they conquer your country. To find out how rich you are and how many horses you can supply, they take a census. They then use your horses and supplies to conquer more territories. This is how they built the largest empire in the history of the world - no fools, those Mongols.

Inca Empire, Peru 1400.

There's no written Inca language, so your census data is recorded using a complicated system of knots tied on lengths of string made from the wool of llamas and alpacas... if you keep alpacas, don't be surprised if they look a bit bald in census years.

Europe, 1700 - 1800

The nobility of England, France and Denmark strongly resist censuses, because they fear handing too much power to the government. However, censuses are taken regularly in their colonies (such as Iceland and the Caribbean) to keep the colonials under control and taxed... in those days, it appears, people were definitely NOT all in it together.

America, 1790

The first US census is begun by officials on horseback. Because of the distances involved, it takes 18 months to complete. If you are a slave, you only count as 3/5ths of a person... and if you are a Native American, you don't count at all until 1860. (I'm still wondering about that three fifths!)

China, 2010

This census records the largest population in the world so far at 1.3 billion people, including 23 million Taiwanese. It's probably a good thing they have so many people, since it takes ten million census workers (equivalent to the entire population of Belgium) to count them all... job creation scheme springs to mind?

UK, 2001 and 2011

Order of the Jedi

In 2001, more than 390,000 people claim to be Jedi Knights (Star Wars) on their census form, after believing an internet rumour that it will become a government recognised religion if enough people support it. In 2011, only 177,000 people are still claiming to be Jedi... presumably the other 213,000 have in the meantime turned to the dark side of the Force?

UK, 2021

This census is taken in the middle of a global pandemic. Everyone in the country - whether healthy or sick - is locked down at home, cannot meet with more than one (local) friend, must wear a gag whenever they go out, is forbidden to travel for non essential purposes, cannot find anywhere open for a cup of coffee or a pint, and has no idea when their life will be permitted to resume. Presumably, anyone declaring overnight visitors on March 21st this year will get a prompt visit from the police and a £10,000 fine... which, if you remember (see above) is considerably greater than the fine for providing false information on your census... you couldn't make it up.


Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young readers.

Free ebooks are available for readers of all ages.

Horse of Mist

Find out more at www.katherineroberts.co.uk


It's the UK except Scotland this time - I can't remember why but we are waiting until next year for ours.
Incidentally I would quite like to go back to my place of birth (Brighton) right now - or anywhere really!
Griselda Heppel said…
Fascinating stuff. I didn't realise the census idea went back so far in time but it's obvious really. If you want to make the best use of your population, either for taxation or canon fodder, you need to have an idea of how big/wealthy it is. I was a bit puzzled by the Israel date of 5 BC, especially as you place it a little before King David - is that meant to be 500 BC? (My knowledge of OT timeline somewhat sketchy.)

Thanks for this enjoyable riff! I'm about to go over to my 95 year-old mother to help her fill in the census form online. Have to say it was a bit rotten of the ONS to send out letters with no indication of how to get a form if the online world is closed to you. Clever of your father to work out who he had to ring and then be able to do it. That would certainly be beyond my mum's capabilities. I wonder how many fragile elderly people are risking the £1,000 fine because they have no one to help them. Grrr.
Griselda, you're right, that Exodus date does look rather iffy! Should be 1500 BC, blame cut and paste... :-)
Peter Leyland said…
That's a really entertaining piece Katherine and great research. Thanks very much for helping me laugh away a few clouds.

Popular posts

How to Make Love to Your War Bag ~ Reb MacRath

Hit the Road, Jack, and Don’t You Come Back, No More No More No More No More (well, until you’ve sold at least five books, anyway)

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Where We Work (Part Two) - Joint Post

Needle fails again by Jan Needle