Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

31 July 2023

Historical census publications of Africa, the West Indies, and Pacific Islands: 'Unlocking our Hidden Collections'


The British Library acquires material at a rapid rate, and this has resulted in areas where material cannot be catalogued promptly soon after its arrival. This prevents discovery and access by readers, effectively ‘hiding’ the material away. In response to this, the Unlocking our Hidden Collections initiative aims to clear cataloguing backlogs, process donated material, and upgrade already existing bibliographic records, making the material 'visible' once more.


Swaziland 1956 1

Front cover of the Swaziland census 1956. Credits: Swaziland census 1956 shelfmark C.S.D.475/1.

There are several collections being worked on under this umbrella including  Archives by Women Musicians, the Tony Benn Archive: Correspondence and personal papers, Cotton charters and rolls, and the Harley Manuscripts (post 1600).

The Government and Official Information group at the British Library also has a collection joining this exciting line up, the Historical Census Publications of Africa, the West Indies, and Pacific Islands; which is comprised of 18th and 19th century publications and was donated by the Office for National Statistics in the late 1990s. Up to now the material has not been fully accessioned and catalogued.

With the commencement of the Hidden Collections project, these items are being sorted and catalogued, so that readers will now be able to access this intriguing material via the Library's main catalogue Explore the British Library.  The main focus is to process items from Africa, the West Indies, and the Pacific Islands.  

But this work will also reveal and allow us to catalogue material from other areas, because when the material was first accepted it was listed and stored in boxes containing a mix of items, for example the Gold Coast with Canada, or Malawi with Ireland, resulting in a mix of locales. Many of these areas went through periods of upheaval and change during the 18th and 19th centuries  – from world wars and other conflicts, to the end of colonial rule and establishing independence as separate nations.

The first item to be catalogued from these donated publications as part of the Hidden Collections Programme was the Swaziland census of 1956, which was one of the last censuses carried out in the country before it regained independence in 1968.

Swaziland 1956 2

Introductory paragraph of the Swaziland census 1956. Credits: Swaziland census 1956 shelfmark C.S.D.475/1.

During this time Swaziland was governed by a resident Commissioner who worked with the white settlers, the Swazi ruler, and the British High Commissioner to South Africa. Following Swaziland’s involvement in the Second World War, and some unpopular decrees made by the Commissioners, in 1952 the Swazi paramount chief was given a degree of autonomy that had been unheard of in the indirect British rule in Africa.

While the census document itself may look unassuming, inside it is filled with tables that give an insight into the lives of people living in Swaziland in 1956 as the country was being prepared for independence. For example, there are tables that measure the population growth of Swaziland against other regions, before going on to list the demographics of age, sex, residence, occupation, and it also contains comparative tables of the African population compared to the Euro-African population.

As the project has continued it has become evident that this census material is a true mix of cultures, spanning the globe from New Zealand to Lesotho, to Malta to Jamaica, to Argentina to Canada, and everywhere in between.

The mix of material has thrown up different challenges to be met along the way. One of the first encountered was how to approach censuses that had been bound together, whether to catalogue the item as a whole or to treat each census as an individual item.

Gold coast

Spine of an item with three census years listed, culminating in four different documents in need of cataloguing. The 1921 census can also be found at C.S.C.378/4., and the 1931 census at C.S.C.378. Credits: Gold Coast 1911, 1921, 1931 shelfmark OPE.2023.x.59.

Other headscratchers have been about what the correct approach should be for censuses published as a Parliamentary Sessional Paper, or in a Gazette, or in a supplement to that Gazette, or published in a supplement to a bulletin for the census of a completely different country. There are a lot of different ways to publish a census, and not just as a simple monograph.

However, there have been some fantastic finds within the material donated by the Office for National Statistics. Highlights have included additional volumes from the Mauritius 1983 census (CSD.384/63) and the Commonwealth Caribbean 1970 census (CSF.157/60) which have been added to our existing holdings. A census new to our collections was that for Nigeria in 1963. This census was the last taken before the civil war of 1967-70, and the 1973 census was cancelled amid controversy and accusations of inaccuracies in the counting.

There has also been the first census of Malta taken in 1842, which unlike most we have received was conducted not by a Statistics or Census Office, but instead by the Chief Inspector of Police. Another item of note was a very interesting census for the Western Pacific Islands in 1911. While geographically expansive, it was incredibly short – with most of the islands having a single sentence census: “Island was empty at this time.”

Labuan 1881

The first page from the handwritten census of Labuan in 1881. Credits: [Report on the census of Labuan and its dependencies taken in 1881], shelfmark OPG.2023.x.8 (1)


Some of the best finds though have been the handwritten censuses, such as the Gambian census of 1901, or that of Norfolk Island in 1891. There was also the census of Labuan in 1881, a tiny island near the coast of Borneo that was uninhabited until it came into the hands of the British who constructed a port there, although how it came to be under British control is a matter of some debate. Some stories involve pirates, and others hostage taking and cannon fire. Later the censuses of this island became folded into that of North Borneo, and were published in the Official Gazette.

As the Hidden Collections Programme progresses, more of this material will become accessible.  Its eclectic mix of locales and publication methods serves to highlight the incredibly varied census publications already in the collection, as well as some great new additions.


Vikki Greenwood

Cataloguer, Hidden Collections Project