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.
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