Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-4rdrl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-16T17:32:45.107Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

The Religious Question in the United Kingdom Census, 1801–2011

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 June 2014

Department of Geosciences, PO Box 77000, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth 6031, South Africa; e-mail:


It is notable that, in contrast to Ireland, there was no religious question in the decennial censuses of Great Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Parliament debated and determined the contents of the enumeration and the inclusion of religion was keenly disputed until 1914. The debates raised issues of religious liberty, church establishment and practical applicability. However, census-taking required broad public cooperation and the possibility of widespread opposition to the question led to its repeated exclusion. Only in the twenty-first century was the religious question reconsidered and included, as a result of changes in British society.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Higgs, E., The information state in England: the central collection of information on citizens since 1500, Basingstoke 2004Google Scholar, and Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1836–1952, Hatfield 2004.

2 Crawford, E., Counting the people: a survey of the Irish censuses, 1813–1911, Dublin 2003Google Scholar; Higgs, E., Making sense of the census, London 1989Google Scholar.

3 Szreter, S., Sholkamy, H. and Dharmalingam, A., Categories and contexts: anthropological and historical studies in critical demography, Oxford 2004, 16Google Scholar.

4 Scott, J., Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed, New Haven 1998, 82–3Google Scholar.

5 MacKinnon, K., ‘A century on the census: Gaelic in twentieth century focus’, in Thomas, D. S. (ed.), Gaelic and Scots in harmony, Glasgow 1990, 163–83Google Scholar. Ireland introduced a question in 1851, Scotland in 1881 and Wales in 1891. England only did so in 2011.

6 Labbé, M., ‘Le Project d'une statistique des nationalités discutés dans les sessions du Congrès International de Statistique (1853–1876)’, in Ronsin, F., Le Bras, H. and Zucker, E. (eds), Démographie et politique, Dijon 1997, 127–42Google Scholar.

7 Dargent, C., ‘Official statistics on religion: Protestant under-reporting in nineteenth century French censuses’, Population lxiv (2009), 203–19Google Scholar; Labbé, M., ‘Institutionalizing the statistics of nationality in Prussia in the 19th century’, Centaurus xlxi (2007), 289306CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Alleaume, G. and Fargues, P., ‘La Naissance d'une statistique de’état: le recensement de 1848 en Égypte’, Histoire et mesure xiii/1, 2 (1998), 147–93Google Scholar; Cadiot, J., ‘Searching for nationality: statistics and national categories at the end of the Russian Empire (1897–1917)’, Russian Review lxiv (2005), 440–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Plakans, A., ‘Minority nationalities in the Russian Baltic provinces: the 1881 Baltic census’, History of the Family x (2005), 720Google Scholar; Shaw, S. J., ‘The Ottoman census system and population, 1831–1914', International Journal of Middle East Studies ix (1978), 325–38Google Scholar.

9 Curtis, B., The politics of population: state formation, statistics, and the census of Canada, 1840–1875, Toronto 2001Google Scholar; Sainty, M. R. and Johnson, K. A., Census of New South Wales, November 1828, Sydney 1980Google Scholar.

10 Jones, K. W., ‘Religious identity and the Indian census’, in Barrier, N. G. (ed.), The census in British India: new perspectives, New Delhi 1981, 73101Google Scholar. See also Maheshwari, S., The census administration under the Raj and after, New Delhi 1996Google Scholar, and Mohanty, S. P. and Momin, A. R., Census as social document, Jaipur 1996Google Scholar.

11 Anderson, M. J., The American census: a social document, New Haven 1988Google Scholar; United States Census Bureau, Measuring America: the decennial censuses from 1790 to 2000, Washington 2002, 119–24Google Scholar.

12 Schultz, K. M., ‘Religion as identity in postwar America: the last serious attempt to put a question on religion in the United States census’, Journal of American History xciii (2006), 359–84Google Scholar.

13 Moss, C., ‘Selection of topics and questions for the 2001 census’, Population Trends xcvii (1999), 2836Google Scholar.

14 Weller, P., ‘Identity, politics, and the future(s) of religion in the UK: the case of the religion questions in the 2001 decennial census’, Journal of Comparative Religion xix (2004), 321Google Scholar at p. 5.

15 Higgs, Making sense of the census, 4–7.

16 Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an act, passed in the forty-first year of His Majesty King George III, 1801–2 (9), vi.3.

17 Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an act passed in the first year of the reign of His Majesty King George IV, 1822 (502), xv.

18 Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an act of the united parliament, passed in the 55th year of the reign of his late majesty George the third, 1824 (577), xxii.411.

19 Minutes of evidence taken before the committee on the bill taking an account of the population of Great Britain, and the increase or diminution thereof, 1830, xv.

20 Hansard i. 942–3, 12 Nov. 1830 (O'Connell).

21 First Report of the Commissioners of Public Instruction, Ireland, 1835 (45) xxxiii.1.

22 Ibid. 2.

23 Ibid. 5.

24 Ibid. 6.

25 ‘Report to the Council of the Statistical Society of London, from the committee appointed to consider the best mode of taking the census of the United Kingdom in 1841', JSSL iii (1840), 72–102.

26 Population Bill, 1840 (338) iii.275; Population (Ireland) Bill, 1840 (552), iii. 315.

27 History of the census of 1841, TNA, RG27/1.

28 Circular despatches, registrar-general to secretary of state, 5 Aug. 1842, TNA, CO854/4.

29 Barrow, J. H., Mirror of Parliament, session 1840, volume VI, London 1840, 5050Google Scholar. The pre-1860 debates on the census bills were largely unrecorded in Hansard. They also elicited little reportage in the press.

30 Journal of the House of Lords 1840, 6 Aug., 637.

31 Macourt, M. P. A., ‘The religious inquiry in the Irish census of 1861', Irish Historical Studies xxi (1978), 168–87Google Scholar.

32 ‘Proceedings of the Census Committee of the Statistical Society of London 1850', JSSL xiii (1850), 267–9.

33 Hansard cxi.870, 6 June 1850 (Lewis).

34 United States, The seventh census 1850: report of the superintendent of the census for December 1, 1852, Washington 1853, 29Google Scholar.

35 Census of Great Britain 1851: religious worship, England and Wales, 1852–3 (1690) lxxxix/1, p. cxix.

36 Mann, H., ‘On the statistical position of religious bodies in England and Wales’, JSSL xviii (1855), 141–59Google Scholar.

37 Census of Great Britain 1851: religious worship, p. clxxxii.

38 Fourteenth annual report of the registrar general 1851, 1852–3 (1665), xl. 4–5.

39 Gay, J. D., The geography of religion in England, London 1971, 4563Google Scholar; K. S. Inglis, ‘Patterns of religious worship in 1851', this Journal xi (1960), 74–86; Pickering, W. S. F., ‘The 1851 religious census: a useless experiment?’, British Journal of Sociology xviii (1967), 382407CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thompson, D. M., ‘The religious census of 1851', in Lawton, R. (ed.), The census and social structure, London 1978, 241–88Google Scholar.

40 Gilbert, A. D., Religion and society in industrial England: Church, chapel and social change, 1740–1914, London 1976, 29Google Scholar.

41 ‘Recommendations of the Council of the Statistical Society as regards the census of 1861', JSSL xxiii (1860), 222–3.

42 Hansard clviii.92, 24 Apr. 1860 (Baines).

43 Reports of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Public Petitions 1860, 1822, PA, HL/CL/PO/6/367.

44 Appendix to the reports of the Select Committee of the House of Lords on Public Petitions 1860 [APP 739]: Petition of the Committee of the Board of Congregational Ministers in and around the Cities of London and Westminster, PA, HL/CL/PO/6/368, 340.

45 Hansard clvii.1766, 25 May 1860 (Lewis).

46 Hansard clix.1695, 11 July 1860 (Baines).

47 Ibid. 1696–7.

48 Ibid. 1698.

49 Ibid. 1729 (Mansell).

50 Ibid. 1735 (Whiteside).

51 Ibid. 1713 (Lewis).

52 Ibid. 1714.

53 Ibid. 1733 (Palmerston).

54 Ibid. 1729 (Mansell).

55 Ibid. 1741.

56 The census of Ireland, 1861, part IV: Report and tables, religious professions, education and occupations of the people, volume I, 1863 (3204–III), lix.1.

57 ‘Recommendations of the Council of the Statistical Society as regards the census of 1871’, JSSL xxxiii (1870), 113.

58 Hansard ccii.1356–57, 4 July 1870 (Bruce).

59 Ibid. cciii.1260, 29 July 1870 (Hay).

60 Ibid. 811, 22 July 1870 (Bruce).

61 Ibid. 812.

62 Ibid. 813 (Baines).

63 Chronicle of Convocation 1870, 6 July, 491

64 Hansard cciii.1404, 2 Aug. 1870 (Exeter).

65 Parry, J. P. and Taylor, S., ‘Introduction: parliament and the Church of England from the Reformation to the twentieth century’, PH xix (2000), 113Google Scholar.

66 ‘Report of a committee with reference to the census of 1881’, JSSL xliii (1880), 134–9.

67 Hansard ccli.557, 8 Mar. 1880 (Cross).

68 Hansard ccliii.179, 17 June 1880 (Gladstone).

69 Hansard ccliv.145, 12 July 1880 (Enfield).

70 ‘Report of the committee with reference to the census of 1891', JRSS li (1888), 816–18.

71 Longstaff, G. B., ‘Suggestions for the census of 1891’, JRSS lii (1889), 436–67Google Scholar.

72 Report of the committee appointed to inquire into certain questions connected with the taking of the census: minutes of evidence, appendices, 1890 (C6071), lviii. 1, p. xi.

73 Larsen, T., ‘A nonconformist conscience? Free Churches in parliament in nineteenth century England’, PH xxiv (2005), 107–19Google Scholar.

74 Bell, P. M. H., Disestablishment in Ireland and Wales, London 1969, 230Google Scholar.

75 Chronicle of Convocation 1890, 8 May, 149–52.

76 Hansard ccxlvii.402, 21 July 1890 (Ritchie).

77 Ibid. 417 (Shaw-Lefevre).

78 Ibid. 518, 22 July 1890 (Dimsdale).

79 Ibid. 520 (Picton).

80 Ibid. 534, division.

81 Reports of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Public Petitions 1890, PA, HC/CL/JO/6/657, 745.

82 Petition re census from Presbytery of Dumbarton, PA, HL/PO/6/13/52, 16 June 1890.

83 Hansard ccxlvii.538, 22 July 1890 (Somervell).

84 Ibid. 539 (Robertson).

85 Ibid. 540 (Esslemont).

86 ‘The census of 1901, second interim report’, JRSS lxiii(1900), 107–11.

87 Chronicle of Convocation 1900.

88 Reports of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Public Petitions, 1900, PA, HC/CL/JO/6/783. 14.

89 Hansard lxxx.505, 9 Mar. 1900 (Williams).

90 ‘Report of the census committee, 1908–09’, JRSS lxxiii (1909), 574–93.

91 Report on the census of the British Empire 1901, 1905 (Cd2174), ci.1.

92 Circular despatches, secretary of state to colonial governors, 17 Nov. 1909, TNA, CO854/45.

93 Report of the Royal Commission on the Church of England and other Religious Bodies in Wales and Monmouthshire, 1910 (Cd5432), xiv.1.

94 Hansard xvii (Commons), 1232, 14 June 1910 (Burns).

95 Hansard xviii (Commons), 257, 21 June 1910 (Rawlinson).

96 Ibid. 259 (Jones).

97 Even in Wales more marriages still took place in the Established Church than in Nonconformist chapels, again emphasising the differing approaches to evaluating denominational attachment: Seventy-fourth report of the registrar general 1910, 1911 (Cd5988), xi.1, 206–9.

98 Hansard xviii (Commons), 266, 21 June 1910 (Cecil).

99 Ibid. 290, division.

100 Hansard vi (Lords), 67, 12 July 1910 (Newton).

101 Ibid. 74 (Beauchamp).

102 Ibid. 76 (St Davids).

103 Ibid. 79.

104 Ibid. 89 (Canterbury).

105 Ibid. 90 (Crewe).

106 Ibid. 83 (Lansdowne).

107 Ibid. 94, division.

108 Ibid. 287, 19 July 1910 (Eversley).

109 Ibid. 302, division.

110 Ibid. xix (Commons), 2284, 27 July 1910 (Burns).

111 Ibid. 2294, division.

112 Green, S. J. D., The passing of Protestant England: secularisation and social change c. 1920–1960, Cambridge, 2011, 327Google Scholar.

113 ‘Report on the census’, JRSS lxxxiii (1920), 134–9.

114 Conference of British Commonwealth statisticians, Census Committee minutes and report, TNA, RG47/23, 19 Feb. 1920.

115 Census (Great Britain) Bill, 1920 (171), i. 253; Census (Ireland) Bill, 1920 (197), i. 263.

116 Hansard dcxxii (Commons), 1195–6, 4 May 1960 (Macpherson).

117 Northern Ireland, Census of population 1926, general report, Belfast 1929, p. liGoogle Scholar.

118 Doherty, P. and Poole, M. A., ‘Religion as an indicator of ethnicity in Northern Ireland: an alternative approach’, Irish Geography xxxv (2002), 7588Google Scholar.

119 Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland census 2001, general report, Belfast 2006, 82Google Scholar.

120 The 2001 census of population, 1999 (Cm4253), 40.

121 Sherif, J., ‘A census chronicle: reflections on the campaign for a religion question in the 2001 census for England and Wales’, Journal of Beliefs and Values xxxii (2011), 118Google Scholar.

122 Census (Amendment) Bill [HL], 1999–2000 (100).

123 Hansard dcviii (Lords), 1709, 27 Jan. 2000 (Weatherill).

124 Ibid. 1711 (Newby).

125 Ibid. 1719 (McIntosh).

126 Sherif, ‘A census chronicle’, 10–11.

127 Hansard ccclii (Commons), 266, 20 June 2000 (Sayeed).

128 Ibid. 281 (Mactaggart).

129 Ibid. 271 (Hogg).

130 Ibid. 280 (Forth).

131 Ibid. 310, division.

132 Office for National Statistics, Census 2001, definitions. London 2004, 86Google Scholar.

133 Report of the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords: a house for the future, 2000 (Cm4534), 155–8.

134 Debates of the Scottish Parliament, 13 Jan. 2000 (Wallace).

135 Ibid. 16 Feb. 2000 (Wallace).

136 Ibid. (Monteith).

137 Office for National Statistics, Census 2001, 86.

138 Hansard dccxiv (Lords), WA35, 3 Nov. 2009 (Crawley).