100 Years Of History: Finding Our Past Within The 1921 Census | History Hit
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100 Years Of History: Finding Our Past Within The 1921 Census

Peta Stamper

07 Jan 2022
Image Credit: Findmypast

After a century kept under strict privacy laws, 100 years of history are revealed with Findmypast’s release of the 1921 Census of England and Wales. In partnership with The National Archives, Findmypast have painstakingly conserved, transcribed and digitised the details of 38 million people to tell the stories of our families, communities and workplaces.

On paper, the remarkable project consists of some 30,000 bound volumes of original documents stored on 1.6 linear kilometres of shelving. Findmypast now allows you to access this fascinating and previously unseen archival material online.

“It’s always an exciting event, the once in a decade release of the census,” says Dan Snow, who was joined by Audrey Collins from The National Archives and Myko Clelland from Findmypast to discuss what the 1921 Census reveals about life 100 years ago.

A window into postwar life

Surveyed in the wake of World War One, the 1921 Census was characterised by the trauma of war, shown through demographic change. Some 1 million servicemen never returned from the war in 1918. As a result, the 1921 Census shows a marked increase in the ratio of women to men aged 20-45 (the demographic who went to war) with 1,096 women to every 1,000 men.

Yet as Audrey describes, the 1921 Census not only provides us with big picture statistics. Through personal details and individual responses, we gain a window into life after the war. Such details show us that those who returned were not unaffected by their wartime experiences.

Myko notes one particular entry completed by typewriter instead of ink as the official instructions requested. Alongside this form was an explanatory note that poignantly illustrates how conflict effected returning servicemen: “I regret not being able to fill out this schedule in ink as directed, but I lost half of my right hand in the late war”.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, 1919.

Image Credit: Library of Congress / Public Domain

Other comments refer to Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s promise for a postwar ‘land fit for heroes’. Despite this promise, the census reveals that in 1921 there were not enough homes for returning soldiers and their families, with 13.7% of the population living 2 families per dwelling and 6.1% with 3 or more families.

“That apprehension for the future is brought out in the section relating to children… One couple had no children and they wrote right over the top of the form: they do not wish to produce for an overstocked labour market or for the purpose of cannon fodder”.

How did the 1921 Census differ from previous censuses?

Following the first national census in 1841, the questions in each survey adapted over time to reflect new attitudes and the government’s shifting priorities. In 1921, for the first time people were asked about divorce, causing anxiety about the stability of society.

The 1921 Census was also the first survey in which more than one question had been removed. First, the question about women’s fertility (asking how many children a married woman had) was replaced in 1921 with one about orphanhood (asking children under 15 which of their parents remained alive).

The ‘orphan question’ once again reflected demographic changes brought by World War One, with many children having lost their fathers during the war and mothers to the Spanish Influenza pandemic that struck in 1918.

Questions about marriage and orphanhood asked on the 1921 Census form.

Image Credit: Findmypast

The second question, removed entirely from the 1921 Census, concerned disability. Considering the great number of those who returned from war with injuries, would a question on disability not be relevant in 1921? Audrey’s answer is that the Registrar General and authorities had sought more objective means of finding this information:

“What you were asking people to do was to give medical information; asking non-medical people to give a medical judgement about someone else, very possibly their own child. So the information wasn’t reliable.”

There were small alterations to the questions about nationality and citizenship, as well as an expansion on the question of occupation. Unlike the 1911 Census, in 1921 the question of occupation applied to everyone rather than just public workers, now allowing us to trace whole workplaces and communities of people linked by their employers.

The question about occupation on the 1921 Census return form.

Image Credit: Findmypast

Why is the 1921 Census particularly special for researchers?

Of course, there is a 100-year privacy rule on each census, which allows people to trust that the information they provide will likely not come back to haunt them during their lifetime. This embargo also means researchers must wait a decade before each census is released.

However, we will not see another census until the 2050s. Why? Unfortunately, the 1931 Census was lost during an accidental fire at the Office for Works in 1942.

Myko then explains that there was no census taken in 1941 because of World War Two. “That means we have a gap now until 2052, where we won’t get any other of these large, national surveys of the country that we can use to do any kind of history”.

The 1921 Census captures a snapshot of early 20th century Britain’s cultural, social and political turmoil in the words of households across England and Wales. This differs from Scotland where the original handwritten returns are not kept.

However, in an incredible turn of events, one Scottish household handed their form in while in England. Theirs is all that remains of the original 1921 census of Scotland, making this census even more unique.

The census is a chorus: it’s this big cacophony of voices of all of the people in England and Wales, and for any kind of historical research, that is really invaluable.

The 1921 Census also continues the stories of those who took part 50 years back in 1871, many of whom were in 1921 pensioners. It is this continuity that further illustrates the changes to British society at the dawn of the 20th century. For example, the shrinking number of the landed gentry and of those in domestic service, as well as the generally smaller size of British families.

What has stayed the same?

From the 1921 Census we can also see the many parallels between life 100 years ago and our lives today: political upheaval, distrust in politicians, concerns about work, a pandemic. “These people aren’t just our ancestors,” Myko reflects, “they’re us, in so many different ways”.

Like many of us, the people of 1921 adored their pets. Census forms from 1921 have been found with the names of pets listed among human family members, including ‘Tarzan’ the cat. One form that is missing a corner even features a note claiming the “dog did this”.

“We can place our own families within that narrative,” says Myko, who has used the 1921 Census to once again trace members of Dan’s family. Providing a snapshot of life in 1921, he reveals that on the night of the census Dan’s great-grandmother Geraldine was staying in Swanage at the Royal Victoria Hotel.

The 1921 Census records showing Geraldine Snow, Dan’s great-grandmother, at the top of the page.

Image Credit: Findmypast

Explore your own story

Exploring our past helps us to better understand who we are today. The best way to connect with the past is through the people we have connections with. Through the discoveries made when exploring our family histories within documents, archives and records, we have the power to change our view of the world and our place in it.

Don’t wait to find out how your family’s past could change your future. Start searching the extensive 1921 Census records and more at Findmypast today.

Peta Stamper