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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: John Rickman, Census Man

Monday, 22 August 2011

John Rickman, Census Man

22 August marks the 240th anniversary of the birth of John Rickman (b. 1771). Successively Speaker's Secretary and Clerk Assistant of the Commons, Rickman was a brilliant polymath: a proto-statistician, founder of the UK Census, reforming Parliamentary official and friend of Byron, Charles Lamb and Telford.  He is also a key figure in the story of the 1834 fire at Parliament.

This year has of course been census year in the UK: possibly the last one ever.  Amid all the publicity about it, few remember Rickman's original vision.  His interest was piqued by the contemporary debate about population growth and the causes of poverty.  In 1798 the political economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) had published An Essay on the Principle of Population which sought to identify the causes of national prosperity and personal happiness by linking population trends with the availability of food.  The view at the turn of the 19th century was that the British population was falling, and Malthus considered this a harshly utilitarian inevitability:  a series of checks such as war, famine, delayed marriage, contraception and so on, would  (by a form of natural selection, though it was not called this at the time) lead ultimately to a more sustainable and content populace, less likely to revolt.  Rickman, however, believed that the population had continued to rise without ill effect, and created the Census to collect the necessary data to prove whether this hypothesis was true or not, and to aid the government in military recruitment and the continuing discussions over reform of the old Poor Law.  In fact he had first put forward his proposals in an essay written in 1796, two years before that of Malthus whose views he continued to oppose until his death.  The 1801 Census was passed by Act of Parliament after Rickman came to the attention of Speaker Abbott (and was subsequently his private secretary).  He continued his work on refining and testing out new questions in the 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses, also back-projecting population trends for the 18th century based on parish registers, which turned out also to be pretty accurate by modern standards. 

Rickman portrait
© Parliamentary Works of Art Collection
But it is as a senior Parliamentary official (number two in the administration of the House of Commons) that he appears in Conflagration.  When fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster in the early evening of 16 October 1834, he was snoozing at home after a good dinner with some friends at his club, The Athenaeum. His account of the disaster, and those of his wife and feisty daughter Frances (on whom more in a later blog post), are some of the most thrilling eyewitness descriptions which survive, because the family watched the fire as it headed right towards them in their house in the Palace precincts as they frantically packed up all their belongings. Their letters and notes provide the backbone of several chapters in Conflagration. So what happens to them, their servants, their possessions and their lovely home? My lips are sealed until publication day...

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At 22 August 2011 at 23:09 , Blogger Audrey Collins said...

It's good to see John Rickman being commemorated - although I have to admit I didn't know that today was his birthday. The words 'Rickman' and 'Census' caught my eye when someone that I follow re-tweeted your post.

Your blog is now listed in my Google reader and there are quite a few more posts that look very interesting. But I'm supposed to be writing and the deadline is looming...

I'm giving a talk on the GRO and the Census at our 'Celebrating the Census' day at The National Archives on 1 October, and Mr Rickman will get an honourable mention in the introduction. After all the GRO wouldn't have been able to organize the later censuses if he hadn't done such a good job with the first four.

At 26 September 2011 at 20:53 , Blogger Caroline Shenton said...

Thanks for your post and good luck on 1st October!


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