The Domesday Book

The first thorough survey of England was in 1086 when William the Conqueror ordered the production of the Domesday Book. This detailed inventory of land and property was a massive undertaking at the time, taking many years to complete. The Domesday survey covered all England as it was in 1086, and included a small part of what is now Wales and some of Cumbria. Almost all the places mentioned can be found on a present day map of England and Wales, though many of their names have been altered over time from their 11th century versions. Major towns at the time such as Winchester and London did not make it into the book.

The Domesday Book paints a very detailed picture of life in Norman England. So in these terms it can be thought of as our first census. But unlike the modern census, it did not provide an accurate count of the people living in England then. Also unlike the modern census, Domesday’s purpose was to establish the ownership of assets, so that owners could be taxed on these possessions.

The book remains an invaluable source for historians and genealogists. Historians can use it to discover the wealth of England at the time, learn more about the feudal system, the geography and demographics of the country. Local historians can use it to find out more about the history of a local settlement and its population and surroundings. And for genealogists, the book provides a useful and fascinating resource for tracing family lines. Through many centuries, the Domesday Book has provided evidence in disputes over ancient land and property rights. Such a case was made as recently as the 1960s.

The Hundred Rolls

In March 1279, King Edward I commissioned a great inquiry into landholding in England. The surviving returns were arranged by hundred, hence their name, the Hundred Rolls.

The 1279 survey never came close to achieving the fame of the 1086 Domesday survey, because nothing was done with the results. However the Hundred Rolls paint a more detailed picture of rural society. The Domesday Book mentions the number of villeins and cottars in each manor but omits their names, their obligations and the size of their holdings. The 1279 survey gave all three, both for unfree peasants (villeins and serfs) and for numerous freeholders who had either been ignored or simply didn't exist at the time of the Domesday survey.

Today, the Hundred Rolls returns only survive for a handful of counties across the Midlands and East Anglia. Ignored at the time, the Rolls have since been a goldmine exploited by all social and economic historians interested in the period, especially for the insight they give to the way individual manors were structured.

Census-taking in the 17th and 18th centuries

In Tudor and Stuart times, bishops were made responsible for counting the number of families in their dioceses, but Britain was very reluctant to adopt the idea of a regular official census. While Quebec held its first official census in 1666, Iceland in 1703 and Sweden in 1749, Britain was slow to follow suit. Some churchgoers believed that any type of people count was sacrilegious. They quoted the notorious census ordered by King David in Biblical times, which was interrupted by a terrible plague and never completed. Others said that a population count would reveal the nation's strengths and weaknesses to foreign enemies.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century however, it became increasingly obvious that there was little idea about the number of people living in Britain.