The 1841 census: a correction

Published in Issue 1 (January/February 2017), Letters, Volume 25

Sir,—Michael Moroney’s otherwise interesting piece on the last pre-Famine census (‘The 1841 census—do the numbers add up?’, HI 23.3, May/June 2015) unwittingly perpetuates a couple of common misunderstandings of key contemporary passages.

The author is of course not the first to question the accuracy of the 1841 return. The census commissioners were themselves struck by the abrupt fall in the rate of population growth since the 1820s. Mr Moroney, however, errs when he reports that:

‘Having considered the matter fully, the census commissioners issued a report stating that, in their opinion, the population of 1831 had an undiminished rate of increase between 1831 and 1841 and that the population returned for 1841 should have been 9,018,799.’

In fact, this was the figure arrived at a decade later by the 1851 census commissioners in estimating what that year’s population would have been in the absence of famine or emigration. Far from querying the 1841 result, their projection was based on it: 8,175,124 inhabitants in 1841 plus 2,711,814 normal births minus 1,868,139 normal deaths equals 9,018,799 in 1851.

A similar exercise had been undertaken in the 1841 census report. On that occasion the commissioners found that the population would have been 8,747,588 had there been no emigration or recruitment for military or East India Company service. Again, this was not a proposed revision of the census return but a hypothetical illustration of the trend of natural growth alone.

The famous letter that Mr Moroney cites from West Clare inspector Captain Wynne similarly doesn’t question the 1841 result, instead referring to the very different situation in 1846:

‘The census of 1841 being pronounced universally to be no fair criterion of the present population and consequent destitution, I tested the matter in the parish of Clondigad, Barony of Islands, where I found the present population more than a third greater than that of 1841. This I believe to be the case in all the districts along the coast, and to be caused entirely by the seaweed traffic, which has done an infinity of mischief. Squatters from all the southern counties have settled down and converted the county into one monster cottier farm.’

This passage is often said to indicate a general undercount of a quarter. In fact it clearly concerns a post-census migratory increase specific to Clare and especially its coast. Crucially, Wynne is discussing 1846, again not 1841. And there is no implication that any of the arrivals had been uncounted in their former locations.

DAVID PARKER

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