Fear of the plague, disaster and disease can be blamed for the long delay before the UK started gathering statistics. The first regular census didn't begin until 1801, nearly a century behind some other countries like Sweden and Iceland.
A reason for the delay was the widespread fear that counting the population would spread disease or lead to disaster. The roots for this belief go back to King David's census of the Israelite population in Biblical times which was interrupted by plague. Other people argued that a population count could reveal the nation's strengths and weaknesses to enemy countries.
Around the same time there were conflicting views about what was happening to the population. On one side, speculation that the population was declining rapidly, based on the number of dilapidated houses and empty church pews. In contrast, leading demographer, Thomas Malthus, was warning that the population was, in fact, rising, which would naturally lead to poverty and disease.
Both predictions persuaded the people to accept the need for a census to establish exactly what the population was. By 1837 the Government had set up the General Register Office (GRO) to collect information on marriages, births and deaths in England and Wales as well as running a census every 10 years.
As statistical skills developed, the research went from being more than just a head count to begin looking at social trends such as age and occupation. The census data, along with the information from the registration of births, deaths and marriages, painted an invaluable picture of current economic and social problems and the early Registrars General of the GRO used the statistics as a tool to press for changes.
For example, special studies were carried out into sanitation in all metropolitan boroughs and there was even an 1873 report on road deaths caused by horse-drawn vehicles in London following concerns about traffic accidents.
One of GRO’s first Statistical Superintendents, Dr William Farr, used the information on sanitation to research the spread of cholera, and Florence Nightingale used it to prove that clean hospitals were essential to prevent the spread of diseases. Farr's studies into the causes of deaths through death registrations also helped trigger the creation of an International Classification of Diseases which is still used today.
The early Annual Reports included social commentary on a wide range of subjects, such as the price of meat and cereals, the number of cattle and sheep, the number of days when snow fell, the number of wills, and even suggestions on names the Welsh should give their children.
Gradually though, the reports became more factual and less devoted to commentary. Nevertheless, the GRO had proved the value of accurate statistics and earned its place in the working of government.
The information now gathered by the census, by birth, death and marriage registrations, and by a variety of annual surveys serves a wide range of invaluable purposes. The Government, for example, allocates rate support grants and funding to health authorities based on the number of people living in each local area.
In addition, local authorities use the information to ensure adequate plans are in place for housing, transport and education in their area.