New national sources with detailed local content are a major feature of the period 1750 to 1914. The national population census is a pre-eminent example. It was introduced in 1801, in wartime and amidst industrialization, urban growth and population movement. Initially information was collected using local overseers of the poor, part of the old parish system, now groaning under the weight of change. Early censuses did not include information on individuals. Then, in 1837, civil registration was introduced (replacing parish registers with a national record of births, marriages and deaths). The Registrar General’s department, created to run the new system, was also given responsibility for the census. The next, 1841, census was the first to include extensive details of individually named individuals collected by enumerators under the direction of registrars.
Since then both the reliable, local population totals and the mass of personal detail provided by the census enumerators’ books or CEBs (now released for each census from 1841 to 1911) have become a bedrock of local studies across a wide range of topics. See www.histpop.org.uk. The value of comparing population levels over time has been illustrated here from Oxfordshire towns (see Framework: Modern section). Enumerators’ returns can be used to analyse the age and sex profile of localities, throwing light on growing or aging communities and relating to work opportunities. The changing experience of children, whether they were at home, school or work, living in their parents’ household or not, can be traced. Birthplaces will reflect migration patterns and horizons of outside contact. These may vary between different occupational groups or according to social status. Linking successive censuses will reveal the movers and stayers, a highly relevant theme given Oxfordshire’s history at this time and potentially of key relevance to the character and degree of community identity. These are just some of the possible avenues of research opened up by the census. The volume of material makes the effective capture, storage and analysis of information all the more crucial, with databases a valuable tool. See E.Higgs, Making Sense of the Census Revisited….A Handbook for Historical Researchers (2005). CEBs and many transcriptions for Oxfordshire parishes may be viewed at the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies.