Why the Census Counts

Next Tuesday night is census night, when we fill in our 10-yearly household census forms – this time with the option to do it all on-line.

It’s a long way from the first Muster of convicts by Governor Hunter in 1795.  Since early New South Wales was a gaol without walls, the first colonial governors did what any good prison governor would do: they ordered all the convicts periodically to gather together while they counted them in Musters.

It’s surprising to realize that this first muster predated the first census in Britain by 6 years.  White settlement in Australia began at just the point where the idea of a regular census was taking hold.  The US conducted its first census in 1790, revolutionary France in 1791 – but the British agonized for another 10 years, worried about privacy, and the danger of disclosing information about their population to enemies.  They finally held their first census in 1801, and have been holding them every decade since then.

Domesday Book 1085

Domesday Book, UK National Archives, E31-2

There were earlier attempts to count populations – the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085 is a famous example – but these were essentially inventories of taxable resources.  So was the first real census in NSW, in 1828, which counted horses, cattle and sheep, along with men, women and children in the colony.

This idea of a census is old.  The Oxford English Dictionary gives the original meaning as ‘The registration of citizens and their property in ancient Rome for purposes of taxation’.  In the early 19th century, though, the state moved beyond gathering data for the basic needs of taxation and conscription, to the idea of using that data to crunch the numbers.

The idea of statistics dates from this time.  The word originally meant the data of the state.  The OED’s earliest definition is ‘The science, that is called statistics, teaches us what is the political arrangement of all the modern states of the known world’ (1770) – with no particular mention of numbers.  By the 1830s, statistics implied numbers.  Harriet Martineau wrote that ‘There is great virtue in figures, dull as they are to all but the few who love statistics for the sake of what they indicate.’ (1837)

Policy makers began to recognize that numbers can give you a handle on your strengths and weaknesses as a society.  What are the birth and death rates?  Do these rates differ in urban and rural areas?  Is the population rising in new industrial centres – and if so, how is this reflected the parliamentary representation? It was relatively easy to avoid providing parliamentary representation to Birmingham, while nobody knew exactly what its population was – much harder once a census had been taken.

In convict NSW, different questions preoccupied authorities: in a gaol, the main concerns were what skills did each convict possess, and what were his identifying features, should he escape.  When convicts disembarked they were registered, and the answers to these questions recorded.  As a result we know more about the physical characteristics and abilities of convicts – from their literacy levels to their favourite tattoos – than we do for the British working class as a whole.

Meanwhile the convict musters were gradually transformed into a proper census, the first in NSW in 1828, including free settlers, the military and their families, as well as convicts past and present.  In the 20th century the Commonwealth Government took over responsibility for census collection – except for Aborigines, who were counted separately, if at all, until 1967.

Statistics have transformed our lives, for better or worse.  It is hard to imagine a world, only 2 centuries ago, when governments had almost no idea what their populations were.

But you need to be wary.  Josiah Stamp was an economist and a director of the Bank of England.  He was President of the Royal Statistical Society from 1930-32.  According to him:

The government are very keen on amassing statistics. They collect them, add them, raise them to the nth power, take the cube root and prepare wonderful diagrams. But you must never forget that every one of these figures comes in the first instance from the night watchman, who just puts down what he damn pleases.

He was talking of India under the British Raj – the ‘night watchman’ was the chowky dar, or village watchman – but the principle is pretty sound.  Perhaps it is just as well that this time we can submit our own answers on-line.  I suspect though that – just like newly arriving convicts, we tend to lie about our strengths and weaknesses.

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2 responses to “Why the Census Counts

  1. I have not checked exactly the following figures but Ithink they are accurate enough to serve my purpose..

    Britains sensitivity to the size of its population was surely justified.Even today there is an image of Britain still spread by various factions.Many Americans for example imagine the brave little colonialists fighting the huge British empire etc.Infact the populations ..including American slaves was about the same on each side …seven million.The Irish present the great famine in a similar distorted way. The population of Ireland and England..the mainpotential food source was nearly equal about fifteen million each.For Britain to support Ireland would be similar to modern Britain to support modern France both with similar sized populations except that in the 1840s there were no railways more than a few short lengths and no railway stations in London..
    Population also comes into more recent discussions..
    I am told that Australians are still resentful about the failure of Britain to support them against the Japanese in WW2. Yet the population o0f Australia was only about three million and it had little industry steel making or arms or chemical facilities or the scientists needed for military projects
    Sadly if Australia had been lost it would have not altered the progress of the war
    England ..or Britain has always been tiny compared to its neighbours France Spain or the Austro Hungarian empire

  2. Pingback: Potatoes and the foods of the poor | Historians are Past Caring

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