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Duration 00:03:02

Counting the people

Discover the epic and illuminating 900-year-old origins of the census in Britain in this animated tale.

Find out more about the story of the census at our census hub.

If you’re a family historian or researcher, find out more about accessing the 1921 census in early 2022 at


There is a story that spans nearly 1000 years, which we add to every decade through the census, a national survey and rare record of Britain’s past.

Our story begins over 900 years ago when the new king, William the Conqueror wanted to know exactly what he’d conquered. His men gathered data on every landowner and all their possessions, every ox and cow and pig. His aim? Taxation!

The result is Domesday, still held today at The National Archives, a unique glimpse into medieval Britain. The next 800 years saw just one census in the 13th century, and then, silence.

Until… The Industrial Revolution, when the census became a regular British staple.
In fact, from 1801 onwards, Britain has produced a new census every single decade with just one break, for the second World War.

It all began with the rapid change of the 19th century, bringing new concerns about population and public health.

So as the century wore on, the focus of the census shifted away from land and towards people.

As we lost our connection to the land a new question arose: instead of just ‘Where do you live?’ The census asked ‘Where were you born?’ and valuable data revealed the shorter lifespans in the cities. And we move into the 20th century. which for the census was an era defined by technology and social change.

In 1911, a slightly convoluted system of machines and punch cards, helped us collate census data, bringing us a richer understanding of who we were. And that same year, saw another early demonstration, this time of the noble art of not taking part.

Early feminists, the suffragettes used the census to protest for women’s right to vote.
Risking fines and even prison, they left their forms blank or wrote, ‘No vote, no census’ across them.

We’ll get to see the 1921 census forms in 2022, a unique moment to reconnect with the past.
In the second half of the 20th century, computers brought us a deeper understanding of the data and as the era came to a close, new questions on ethnicity and religion revealed a changing nation which brings us to today. With the ease of filling out your form online, and adding your own story to the epic and illuminating tale of the census.