Social Science blog

30 January 2013

Census Statistics and Resources

Today sees the Office for National Statistics (ONS) release key statistics for lower level geography data from the 2011 Census. In this post John Kaye explores the changing nature of census outputs and resources available to those who want to go back in time and analyse historic population characteristics

The 2011 Census, Key Statistics and Quick Statistics for Wards and Output Areas in England and Wales has been released today with some key findings around language spoken and statistics showing a significant decrease in married households and a small increase in co-habiting households.

Today’s data release is important for geographers and those interested in spatial research as it allows users to map out key characteristics of the UK population at output area: small geographic analysis areas introduced in 2001, with each area having a minimum of 40 resident households and 100 resident people, but the recommended size was rather larger at 125 households. The map below shows 2001 output areas around The British Library at St Pancras in London and the percentage of the local population born outside the UK.


Crown Copyright. Map Created by John Kaye

2001 was the first time that these population based small areas were used; prior to this census the smallest areas were Enumeration Districts, which were determined not by the size of the population, but by the practicalities of collecting the data. The same map around St Pancras for 1971 based on Enumeration Districts shows the changing nature of this geography.


Crown Copyright. Map Created by John Kaye

Geography isn’t the only way that the Census has changed; questions within the census change with the changing population and changing social issues. For example the question around household amenities in the 1950’s and 1960’s is around the presence of a ‘flushing toilet’, in the 1970’s and 1980’s this changed to an ‘inside toilet’ in 1991 and 2001 the focus changed to ‘toilet and/or bath or shower’. The chart below shows the changing questions and the amount of the UK population affected by lack of amenities since 1951.


Crown Copyright.

With rising living standards and increased access to household amenities the question about amenities has been removed from the 2011 census and questions about number of bedrooms per household and the type of central heating have been added.

When exploring the census and population statistics through time the following digital resources are useful:

Currently there is a digital gap around census statistics and reports from The 2nd World War until 1971, which includes the 1951 and 1961 censuses. However reports and statistics from 1921 to 1991 are available to view in hard copy on the open shelves in The British Library Social Science Reading Room, these include national and county aggregate reports and statistics for all census questions.

The Library also holds other census resources such as a number of maps generated with census and population data from the UK and all over the world. An example below is Augustus Peterman’s map of the British Isles based on the 1841 census.  Just like today the 19th century censuses generated vast amounts of geographic data. How to present that data in a way that could be understood was a major challenge, and required innovative methods. This map was produced by the German geographer Augustus Petermann, and featured a number of new techniques. He used shading to show differences in population density, and graduated dots or circles to show relative sizes of towns and cities. Graphs around the edges of the map show population growth over hundreds of years, and the different rates of growth in large cities (click on the map and zoom in to view the detail). This map, while undoubtedly useful for planning on a national scale, also demonstrates a more general fascination with statistics and population.   

   Augustus Petermanns population density map 1841 (credit British Library Board)

 Augustus Petermann, Map of the British Isles, elucidating the distribution of the population based on the 1841 census. London,1861. Scale 1:1,600,000. Click on the map and zoom for more detail.

The library also provides access to other population records such as the electoral registers and commentary and information around historic censuses through resources such as the British Newspaper Archive. There are many resources available and much to discover about the present and past population.


Census output is Crown copyright and is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen’s Printer for Scotland.

With thanks to Ian Cooke, Lead Curator – International and Political Studies.


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