Academic Staff

Professor Edward Higgs

Position in departmentHead of Department
Staff positionProfessor
Telephone01206 873954
Office hoursBy appointment

I studied modern history at the University of Oxford, completing my doctoral research there in 1978. This was on the history of nineteenth-century domestic service. I was an archivist at the Public Record Office, the national archives in London, from 1978 to 1993. Here I was latterly responsible for policy relating to the archiving of electronic records. I was a senior research fellow at the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine of the University of Oxford, 1993-1996, and a lecturer at the University of Exeter from 1996 to 2000. My early published work was on Victorian domestic service, although I have written widely on the history of censuses and surveys, civil registration, women’s work, the impact of the digital revolution on archives, the information state, and the history of identification.


BA (Hons) Oxford, DPhil Oxford.

Current research

The history of state, commercial and private forms of identification in Britain over the last 500 years.

Research interests

I am mainly interested in British History but with international comparisons, and try to cover broad themes in early modern, modern and contemporary history. Particular interests include statistical representations of society; social construction of knowledge; state surveillance of the citizen; the impact of communications on state and society;  the history of information; and the history of identification.  The following is a link to a film produced by an ex-student, Janet Alexander, that shows some of the themes in the history of surveillance that interest me:   

One of my current research interests is the history of identification in Britain over the last 500 years. This is a contribution to the work of an international network of historians active in this field which I have established in conjunction with Professor Jane Caplan of the University of Oxford. Known as IdentiNet, this network is being funded by the Leverhulme Trust (

I am also the Co-researcher for the Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM) Project, which will create an integrated dataset of the censuses of Great Britain for the period 1851 to 1911. For this work Professors Kevin Schürer and I have received one of the largest personal grants ever awarded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The I-CeM Project will create one of the most important historical datasets in the world, and put British social scientific research, and the University of Essex, at the forefront of international efforts in the field.

Supervision Interests

  • mainly British history but with international comparisons
  • quantitative aspects of medical and demographic history
  • the history of information/communications
  • the history of surveillance and identification
  • the development of the modern British state.

Previous supervision topics include:

The determinants of the infant mortality decline in England during the late 19th and 20th century.
Charitable associations in Colchester 1800-1870.
Historical conceptions of occupations through use of classification schemes, 1662-1921.
Building an imperial discourse: the press, imperialists and power in Britain, France and Russia from 1857 to 1914.

Teaching responsibilities

Undergraduate modules

HR232 The Big Brother State? Surveillance of the citizen in England 1500-2000
HR285 Reconstructing Nineteenth-Century Communities
HR409 Understanding Poverty in Britain

Postgraduate modules

HR935 Research Methods for History
HR936 Quantitative Methods in History



  • Identifying the English: a History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present (London: Continuum, 2011)
  • Making Sense of the Census Revisited. Census records for England and Wales, 1801-1901 - a Handbook for Historical Researchers (London, The National Archives and Institute of Historical Research, 2005). 
  • Life, Death and Statistics; Civil Registration, Censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837-1952, (Hatfield, Local Population Studies, 2004).
  • The Information State in England: the central collection of information on citizens, 1500-2000 , (London, Palgrave, 2004).
  • History and Electronic Artefacts, (ed.) (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • A Clearer Sense of the Census: the Victorian Census and Historical Research, (London, HMSO, 1996).
  • Making sense of the census. The manuscript returns for England and Wales,1801-1901, (London, HMSO, 1989).
  • Domestic Servants and Households in Rochdale, 1851-1871, (New York, Garland, 1986).


  • ‘Identifying criminals: justice seen to be done’, History Today, 61 (10), August 2011, pp. 3-4.
  • ‘What do you do with a bulldog burner? Classifying occupations in the British censuses, 1841-1911’, BBC History Magazine, 12(3), 2011, pp. 50-5.
  • ‘Missing on census night’, Who Do You Think You Are Magazine, 46 (April 2011), pp. 66-70.
  • 'Personal dentification as information flows in England, 1500-2000', in Toni Morris (ed.), Information History in the Modern World (London: Palgrave, 2011), pp. 13-30.
  • ‘Fingerprints and citizenship: the British State and the identification of pensioners in the inter-war period’, History Workshop Journal 69 (2010), pp. 52-67.
  • ‘Change and continuity in the techniques and technologies of identification over the second Christian millenium’, Identity in the Information Society (2010) 'Are state-mediated forms of identification a reaction to physical mobility? The case of England, 1500-2007’, in Elisabeth de Leeuw, Simone Fischer-Hübner, Jimmy Tseng, and John Borking (eds) Policies and Research in Identity Management Conference: First IFIP WG11.6 Working Conference on Policies and Research in Identity Management (IDMAN'07), RSM Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, October 11-12, 2007 (New York: Springer, 2008), pp. 105-20.
  • 'From Frankpledge to Chip and Pin : Identification an Identity in England, 1475-2005'. In Leeuw, Karl de; Bergstra, J. A. (ed.), The history of information security : a comprehensive handbook (Amsterdam; London: Elsevier, 2007)
  • 'Colloquium on The Information State: Reply to Victor Gatrell and Steve Hindle', Journal of Historical Sociology, 18 (2005), pp. 138-143.
  • 'Life, death and statistics: a reply to Simon Szretzer', in Local Population Studies, Vol 75, (2005), pp. 81-4.
  • 'Identification cards and identity in modern Britain', History Today, vol. 54, no. Dec (2004), pp. 16-7.
  • 'The linguistic construction of social and medical categories in the work of the English General Register Office, 1837-1950', In Categories and contexts: anthropological and historical studies in critical demography, eds. S.Szreter, H.Sholkamy, and A.Dharmalingam, pp. 86-106, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • 'The General Register Office and the tabulation of data, 1837-1939', In From Sumer to spreadsheets: the curious history of tables, eds. M.Campbell-Kelly, M.Croarkin, J.Fauvel, and R.Flood, pp. 209-34, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • 'Victorian spies', History Workshop Journal, vol. 53, (2002), pp. 232-5.
  • 'The Annual report of the Registrar General, 1839-1920: a textual history', In The Road to Medical Statistics, eds. E.Magnello and A.Hardy, pp. 55-76, (Amsterdam, Editions Rodopi B. V., 2002).
  • 'The rise of the information state: the development of central state surveillance of the citizen in England, 1500-2000', Journal of Historical Sociology, vol. 14, no. 2 (2001), pp. 175-97.
  • 'Medical statistics, patronage and the state: the development of the MRC Statistical Unit, 1911-1948', Medical History, vol. 44, no. 3 (2000), pp. 323-40.
  • 'From medieval erudition to information management: the evolution of the archival profession', pp. 134-144, (Beijing, Verlag Documentation, 1997).
  • 'The determinants of technological innovation and dissemination: the case of machine computation and data processing in the General Register Office,1837-1920', In Yearbook of European Administrative History, eds. E.V.Heyer and B.Wunder, pp. 161-77, (Baden-Baden, Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 1997).
  • 'A cuckoo in the nest?: The origins of civil registration and state medical statistics in England and Wales', Continuity and Change, vol. 11, no. 1 (1996), pp. 115-34.
  • 'The statistical Big Bang of 1911: ideology, technological innovation and the production of medical statistics', Social History of Medicine, vol. 9, no. 3 (1996), pp. 409-26.
  • 'Occupational censuses and the agricultural workforce in Victorian England and Wales', Economic History Review, vol. XLVIII, no. 4 (1995), pp. 700-16.
  • 'Diseases, febrile poisons, and statistics: the census as a medical survey', Social History of Medicine, vol. 4, no. 3 (1991), pp. 465-78.
  • 'The struggle for the occupational census, 1841-1911', In Government and Expertise. Specialists, Administrators and Professionals,1860-1919, ed. R.MacLeod, pp. 73-88, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988).
  • 'Women, occupations and work in the nineteenth-century censuses', History Workshop Journal, vol. 23, no. Spring (1986), pp. 59-80.
  • 'Domestic service and household production', In Unequal Opportunities. Women's Employment in England 1800-1918, ed. A.V.John, pp. 125-52, (Oxford, Blackwell, 1986).
  • 'Counting heads and jobs: science as an occupation in the Victorian census', History of Science, vol. 23, (1985), pp. 335-49.
  • 'Domestic servants and households in Victorian England', Social History, vol. 8, no. 2 (1983), pp. 201-10.
  • 'Per la storia dei servi domestici: un' analisi quantitativa', Quaderni Storici, vol. 40, (1979), pp. 284-301.

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