Women, War and Work in The 1921 Census | History Hit
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Women, War and Work in The 1921 Census

Peta Stamper

19 Feb 2023

Having spent a century in secret, protected by strict privacy laws, the 1921 Census of England and Wales is now available online exclusively with Findmypast.

This wealth of archival material, meticulously conserved and digitised over 3 years by Findmypast in partnership with The National Archives, tells the stories of our ancestors, homes, workplaces and communities.

As Dan Snow explains, “Every 10 years the British Government, since 1801, has taken a census of the British population”. On 19 June 1921, the details of 38 million people across England and Wales were captured by the Census.

What the records reveal is a population reeling from the trauma of World War One while facing changes to their work, families and ideas about the place of women in society at the beginning of the 20th century.

“Never before – or since – in Britain, had there been so many women compared to men,” says Dan, who was joined this International Women’s Day by Findmypast’s women’s history expert, Mary McKee, and in-house military history expert, Paul Nixon, to discuss what the Census tells us about the lives of women in 1921.

‘Surplus Women’

In 1921, there were 1,096 women for every 1,000 men in Britain. This was the largest demographic distance between the sexes since the 1841 Census, and the gap has not been as high since.

While the details of individual Census returns were protected by the embargo, broader statistics were not, and it was soon made public that there were 1.72 million more women than men living in the UK.

The press devoured news of these ‘surplus women’, fuelling national anxiety about the futures of the women denied husbands by World War One. Those who would have been expected to marry now faced uncertainty over their traditional role in society as wives and mothers.

“It’s interesting to watch this debate in the contemporary newspapers, where some charities are even sponsoring women to go abroad to marry men,” describes Mary. Indeed, Britain’s ‘surplus women’ were encouraged to go to the commonwealth nations including Australia and Canada to find husbands.

At the same time, however, other newspapers suggested 1921 was a moment to be reevaluating women’s place in the labour force. The 1921 Census had raised the question about the future of gender roles in Britain.

Women sitting on a bench reading.

Image Credit: Findmypast

The trauma of war

The stories of women in 1921 were therefore intertwined with those of their male counterparts. “I get the sense that it’s a country getting to grips with the war and coping with what the war has left; the legacies of men who were injured, blinded, disabled, who were still suffering” says Paul.

Indeed, while some 700,000 British men did not return home at all, many returned with injuries that changed not only their lives, but those of their families. Paul mentions St Dunstan’s, a convalescent hospital in Regent’s Park that taught blinded soldiers new trades and in 1921, still had 57 men awaiting admission.

You see men in the Census who obviously before the war were not soldiers, they were civilians. They were doing labouring jobs or working as gardeners … and then blinded, were then learning new trades, so you see them in the 1921 Census doing completely different things.

Despite the Census not asking the question of disability, many men chose to list themselves on the census returns as disabled ex-soldiers, recording the effect of war on their bodies and resultantly, their livelihoods.

How did this effect women? Mary explains how women also saw their roles within the household change as many became carers for wounded husbands and sons.

One particular return tells the story of a woman caring for her nephew who lost his hip during the war. The woman explains how she’s struggling to make ends meet because of a tax rise, asking how dare the government raise her taxes while she cares for this man “and continue to knight men who sit in velvet chairs”.

Through the 1921 Census return forms, a new type of dialogue between government and citizen had been established. The Census provided an opportunity for women and men alike to express their frustration at the lack of jobs, housing and support available to returning soldiers and their families.

The postwar family

The 1921 Census tells us other ways households were changing in the wake of World War One. In 1921, the average size of British families had decreased by 5% since 1911.

The Registry General, who administered the 1921 Census, explained there had been a rise in the number of marriages before the war, combined with a notable fall in the birth rate because of the conflict. In fact, in 1921 the number of children under 4 years old was the lowest in 40 years. Compounded by the great loss of men during the war, the result was smaller families in postwar Britain.

Mary describes another legacy of war shaping British families: the practice of naming children after notable battles. In 1915, there were around 60 children with either the first or second name ‘Verdun’. By 1916, this had risen to over 1,300 children. “It’s a unique way the families tried to honour the dead in the family, of using these battle names”.

The 1921 Census was also the first time Britons were asked about divorce. The returns list over 16,000 divorcees. This number differs, however, from those of the General Register Office, who also had access to public applications for divorce.

The question of divorce posed for the first time in the 1921 Census of England and Wales.

Image Credit: Findmypast

According to Mary, the numbers in the Census were lower than they should have been, the discrepancy suggesting that in 1921, many people were not comfortable recording their divorce status, perhaps because of the social stigma around separation.

“Because now on Findmypast we have the household census forms, we can see what people thought about divorce,” says Mary. One form includes a note in favour of divorce reform, which would make both husbands and wives equal before the law when applying for divorce. Another comment describes divorce as “a curse on the country”, showing that while attitudes towards marriage were shifting, there was anxiety over the stability of British families.

Women’s work

In 1921, Britain was still struggling with the effects of war on the economy. Faced with growing unemployment levels, the 1919 Restoration of Pre-War Practices Act began encouraging women who had stepped in to the roles of their male counterparts during the war, to leave the factories and restore the prewar workplace.

Yet the Census identifies that not all women were content to return to their pre-war jobs. In 1911, there were roughly 1.3 million women in domestic service; in 1921 there were 1.1 million. The War Cabinet Committee on Women in Industry concluded that the different nature of work women contributed during the war had given them a new sense of opportunity.

Domestic servants lived within the household they worked for and as such had few workplace boundaries or free time. After experiencing work in factories and beyond, many women wanted a higher salary and shorter working hours.

“This is such a radical and interesting time for women in the 1920s,” says Mary. “It’s a new generation of women that have the right to vote.” The early 1920s saw a series of legislative reforms on divorce and birth control, as well as sex discrimination, allowing women’s entry into professional occupations from 1919.

Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan listed on the 1921 Census as ‘Professor of Botany’ at Birkbeck College.

Image Credit: Findmypast

The Census testifies to this turning tide through the names of the first female barristers and doctors, many of whom had contributed to the war effort. Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan was commander of the Women’s Royal Air Force during the war, but in 1921 became the first female professor at Birkbeck College, her occupation listed as ‘Professor of Botany’.

Stories like Gwynne-Vaughan’s provide a glimpse into the changing lives of individuals, particularly women, during the often overlooked interwar years. “Having the Census on Findmypast means we have a much more robust way to search these records and understand more about the population”.

Discover your own past

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 exploring the 1921 Census records and more at Findmypast today.

Peta Stamper