1. A guide to earlier census data

Printed reports containing census results have been produced for all censuses. Each were laid before Parliament and made generally available.

The mid decade 1966 Census introduced the first release of census results on electronic media, but the volume of printed results continued to grow until it reached a maximum in 1991.

Printed output was significantly reduced in 2001 with the rapid expansion of release in electronic form.

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2. Obtaining historic census data

A complete set of all previous census printed reports is available for public access by arrangement in the library at the Office for National Statistics headquarters in London. Census Customer Services can also provide extracts of figures from historical reports on request. There is no central list of library holdings of historical Census reports, but the British Library holds a set, and university libraries may also hold the reports. Major local reference libraries also often hold historical reports.

Summary information providing a longer perspective for 1891 - 2001 is available as a series of county monitors and articles produced to celebrate 200 years of the census in 2001, and available to download in the Census bicentenary section.

Microdata samples from historical censuses are available from the UK Data Service (UKDS) and ONS's Virtual Microdata Laboratory to support statistical research. The files are small samples of data for whole households and individuals. They contain a range of socio-demographic characteristics but no information that could identify a household or individual.  Access to the different microdata samples varies according to the size of the sample and  the level of detail contained in it. For more information is available at the UK Data Service Census Support or the Virtual Micro Laboratory

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3. Using and comparing earlier census data

The broad picture of population change can be followed from census to census, but as each census has evolved to reflect and keep up with changes in society, direct comparison does not necessarily provide a good source of information about detailed change over time. Changes in the questions asked, in the categories used to present results, and in geographical boundaries, mean that each census primarily provides a 'cross sectional' picture of the country at the time.

Elements of continuity can nevertheless be found, for example the boundaries of local government areas in England did not change substantially between 1981 and 2001, after wholesale reorganisation in 1974. Figures of population change were provided in the reports on local areas, but this information was cut back in 2001 reports.

Chapter 4 of the Census 2001 Definitions volume provides a guide to the comparability of the 1991 and 2001 UK Censuses in terms of questions, concepts and definitions. A comprehensive and striking picture of change between 1991 and 2001 is provided in 'People and places: A 2001 Census Atlas of the UK' by Daniel Dorling and Bethan Thomas, The Policy Press (University of Bristol), 2004, ISBN 1 86134 555 0.

Summaries of the changing topics covered by questions, and the changing geographical areas used in presentation of results from successive censuses help to illustrate the major differences and are available to view or download.

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4. More information

Census Customer Services provide an enquiry service for all queries relating to products from the 2001 and previous censuses. They also advise on availability of census related products, offer guidance on copyright and licensing matters and are a central source of information on organisations providing value added products and services.


Comparing census topics over time (124.4 Kb Excel sheet)

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5. Census geography 1801-2001

This summary provides information about the main areas for which census results have been presented in England and Wales between 1801 and 2001.

Information is included to indicate when each main type of area was introduced into census reports, and if areas are not still in current use, information about when they were last used to report census results is also included. Many of the areas have been subject to boundary change whilst current, and the existence of a named area over a series of censuses does not necessarily mean that it remained unchanged in terms of its geographical extent.

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6. Change and comparability

The historic and persistent character of census geography as it reflects the dynamics and complexity of the administration of the country was summed up as long ago as the General Report of the 1901 Census which said 'the whole of England and Wales has been divided at different times into various administrative areas with little regard to previously existing divisions that, at the present time, the serious overlapping of boundaries render the work both of the Census Office and the local Officials ... laborious and extremely complicated'.

In very general terms the most significant changes have been the phasing out of 'ancient' administrative areas around the end of the nineteenth century with the introduction of more modern administrative areas, and then the radical reorganisation of local government areas in 1966 and 1974, followed by the introduction of unitary authorities in the whole of Wales and parts of England between 1994 and 1997 . There has also been a 'turnover' of other geographical areas which have reflected the statistical needs of the times.

The large majority of census results below the national level have been presented for areas of local government. From 1881 to 1971 these reflected an urban/rural divide, with Rural Districts and with various administrative types reflecting the size and status of urban areas. This changed in part in 1966, principally with major reorganisation of Greater London, and throughout the remainder of England and Wales in 1974 when the rural/urban divide was subsumed into Districts within 'shire' counties or into Metropolitan districts within Metropolitan Counties. This structure was changed again in part in England between 1994 and 1997 when some 'shire counties' were abolished and Unitary Authorities were introduced in their place and for a number of larger cities previously within 'shire' counties. Unitary authorities were introduced throughout Wales.

Civil parishes, which currently cover the fifth least urban part of the population of England are the least changed areas and may prove a useful basis of local studies, but parishes are subject to boundary change. Reports have also been prepared from the 1981, 1991, and 2001 Cenuses to provide a continued picture of the urban/rural divide.

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7. Main areas: England and Wales: for which census results have been reported, by census date

Areas may have existed/exist in limited parts only of England and Wales

Areas of regional and local government

Ancient counties 1801-1901
Hundreds, Wapentakes 1801-1881
Ancient Parishes 1801-1881
Boroughs 1801-1841


Administrative counties 1891-2001**
County boroughs 1851-1971
Unitary authorities 2001
Districts (England and Wales) 1971-1991
Districts (England) 1971-2001
Municipal boroughs 1851-1971
Metropolitan boroughs 1901-1961
London boroughs 1961-2001
Urban districts 1881-1971
Rural districts 1881-1971
Civil parishes (England and Wales) 1871-1971
Civil Parishes (England) 1871-2001
Communities (Wales)

Government Office Regions (England)
New Towns 1851-1971*
National Parks 2001

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8. Electoral areas

Constituencies (Westminster) 1841/1851-2001
European Assembly
Welsh Assembly 2001
Wards (England and Wales) 1871-
Wards (England) 1871-2001
Electoral divisions (Wales)

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9. Health

Regional health authorities 1991
District health authorities 1991

Strategic health authorities (England) 2001
Primary care trusts (England) 2001
Local health boards (Wales) 2001

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10. Postal

Postal sectors 1991-2001

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11. Statistical

Statistical Regions 1921-
Conurbations 1951- 1971*
Conurbation centres/major centres of employment 1961-1991
Urban areas/remaining areas 1981-2001
Urban and rural areas (2004 definition) 2001

Enumeration Districts 1966-1991
Output Areas 2001
Super Output Areas 2001

National Grid Squares 1971

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12. Other

Results were also released for certain ecclesiastical areas between 1831 and 1951, for certain areas used in the administration of the legal system between 1871 and 1951, and for areas used in the administration of civil registration between 1841 and 1921.

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13. Notes

  • Population counts for New Towns and conurbations were included for comparability after local government reorganisation in the report '1981 Census: Preliminary report for towns, urban and rural population: England and Wales' HMSO, second edition 1982, but no further results were produced.

** Selected 2001 Census reports presented results for the populations of former Metropolitan and 'shire' counties where these had been superseded since 1991.

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14. Further information

A detailed account of 'the areas for which populations have been given in Census reports' was published as part 6 on pages 261 to 273 of Guide to Census Reports: Great Britain 1801- 1966 HMSO, London, 1977. There has been no updating of this guide, but detailed information on the range of areas covered in the 1971-1991 Censuses are from the reports.

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