Counting the nation

Information from past censuses can be viewed at Callendar House
Information from past censuses can be viewed at Callendar House

RULERS have always strived to learn more about the people they are supposed to govern.

Taking a census has, since ancient times, been the most effective way of finding out just how many of us there are in the country – and how we lead our lives.

Mary and Joseph made their famous trip to Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago so that they could register for a census being taken on behalf of the Roman Empire.

The British Government has surveyed its population every 10 years since 1801, with the exception of 1941 when there were rather more pressing matters to deal with.

As each decade has passed, the number of questions has increased and the information demanded has become more detailed.

But why, in an age when authorities know more about our personal lives than ever before, are we still legally bound to complete a detailed and highly sensitive questionnaire?

Duncan Macniven is Scotland’s Registrar General and the man who has spent the past few years planning this year’s survey.

He is in no doubt just how important the answers people give are in delivering effective services across the country.

He said: “The census is unique as it is the only survey to include everyone in the country.

“It asks the same questions of us all and, in doing so, builds a reliable picture of Scotland as a whole, as well as groups of people and communities within it.

“The answers people give to each question produce a rich source of statistics that helps inform how billions of pounds worth of services are spent.

“For example, by telling us that you live in a rural community and that you don’t have a car, you highlight the need for local public transport.

“Or by telling us that you are a pensioner who lives alone and has a health condition, you highlight the need for community health provision in your area.

“This helps central and local government, health authorities, businesses and community groups to target resources to where they are needed.”

For someone like Elspeth Reid, an archivist at the Falkirk Council Archives in Callendar House, the census provides a vital tool in piecing together the story of how the way we live has changed over the centuries.

She said: “The census provides a unique snapshot of history.

“We can find out all sorts of information from it – the size of families, the domestic conditions people lived in, what jobs they had.

“Examining the relevant census is the first port of call for people who want to find out more about their own families or the local area.

“It allows you to compare and contrast the social structure of the time – how things changed between 1811 and 1891 for example.

“It’s of immense value.”

This week a team of census workers will begin to deliver forms to homes across Falkirk and West Lothian.

For the first time, householders will be able to fill in their questionnaire online in either English or Gaelic.

Respondents will be asked five new questions, on topics including long-term health conditions, national identity and when they first arrived in the country.

People will no longer be questioned about their access to bath and shower facilities or if they stay in rented furnished accommodation.

Lorraine Brown is the regional census manager for Falkirk and West Lothian.

She’s in charge of a 300-strong team – all of them working part-time – who are responsible for delivering the questionnaire and helping members of the public complete it.

The 41-year-old from Bathgate has been working since August to ensure that the operation runs smoothly.

She said: “Falkirk is one of the areas where all of the census forms are delivered personally.

“Our team will always try to make contact with the household to ask if they might have any problems with filling in the form or returning it.

“If someone is unable to post it or complete it online, then they can arrange for one of the team to return and collect it on their behalf.

“Census day is March 27 – this does not mean that the form has to be returned by then, but instead you are asked to complete the form so it offers a realistic snapshot of your life on that day.”

Respondents will this year be able to complete the form online, but this is not the first time that the census has embraced new technology.

In March 1911, The Falkirk Herald reported on “the latest American wonder” which was being used to help count that year’s questionnaire.

“All the interesting, shocking and pathetic details which the census reveals to an astonished world every 10 years will this time be sorted out, counted up, and tabulated by an electric labour-saving machine,” the paper reported.

The personal details of the 1911 census will become public for the first time later this year.

We do know, however, that it recorded Falkirk’s population as being 34,807.

This is remarkably similar to the number of people believed to be living in the town today.

The exact figure will of course not be known until after this year’s census has been completed.