Etymology of surnames in England

Authorities on the etymology of surnames agree that few, if any, surnames of a hereditary nature were evident in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Second names can be found but they are in the form of bynames and nicknames which were not inherited by the next generation. Bynames and nicknames probably developed to differentiate between people living in the same place who had the same first name.

Bynames and nicknames may have identified a person in many ways such as by their occupation, location, topography, personal names (e.g., patronymic/matronymic), other family relationships (e.g., son), physical appearance, physical characteristics and mental and moral characteristics. I will come back to these later.

The development of the English language

There were three main foreign influences on the English language over the centuries prior to the Norman Conquest:

  • Danish, particularly in the east and north east of England between 793AD and the Norman Conquest, with the influence of the Vikings who brought Danish to the English shores;
  • German, particularly in southern England with the influence of the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century until the Norman Conquest, who had a Germanic vocabulary and is often referred to an “Old English” being the earliest form of the English language;
  • Latin which of course was the official written language until into the 17th century, and in legal documents until 1733

The Normans and surnames

By the time of the Norman Conquest, although not universal, surnames were in use in some European countries. When the Norman Barons became landowners following the Norman Conquest, there were only a few who possessed surnames which had been inherited (often however from only one or two generations back) e.g. de Tosny, Warenes, Mortimer and Vernons.

Norman Barons who did not have hereditary surnames soon began to adopt them. More commonly they adopted locative type surnames by reference to their family’s chief residence, which was often still in Normandy, rather than the name of their English manor. Some Norman Barons were content with adopting patronymics (e.g. if their father still lived at their family’s chief resident in France), nicknames and occupational names.

It is however, still with some uncertainty as to which, why and how these Norman “newcomers” adopted their surnames. There are no records from the time of the actual invasion to confirm which Barons came over at the time of the conquest and which came over in the immediate aftermath. The first record available is the Doomsday book of 1086, some twenty years after the invasion. It should also be noted that by the 12th and 13th centuries many junior members of the Baronial families began to adopt new surnames!

The Doomsday Book

From the Doomsday book it can be seen that many of the minor Lords and Knights  who came over with the Barons and were rewarded with landholding by way of “tenant-in-chief”, had not yet adopted surnames, at least not hereditary surnames. It is worth noting that the Doomsday book only provides details of those landowners and tenants of land who the King was able to tax, thus the “ordinary” person does not feature and records for those of the lower classes of society do not really begin until the 13th century, such as the Assize Rolls which do include all classes although most are landowners.

Development of Hereditary surnames

The adoption of hereditary surnames was slow; given our fast pace of life today, it could almost be described as “snail pace!” Research conducted indicates that some wealthy English London families had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 12th century, with the majority of the Norman tenants-in-chief in southern England, the Midlands and East Anglia and wealthy English families living in the leading provincial towns, such as Winchester, York, Norwich, Lincoln, having adopted hereditary surnames by the early to mid-13th century. It should be noted however this distinction between the Normans and English families becomes clouded in this period when the English began to adopt first names of Norman origin.

Norman tenants-in-chief elsewhere in the country had adopted hereditary surnames by the late 13th to early 14th century as had Burgesses, families from urban areas and the foot soldiers of the Norman Conquest (and later immigrants) whose ancestors became farmers, craftsmen, servants etc.

Genealogical sources which provide the evidence for early surnames include 14th century Inquisitions post mortem, feet of fines, close rolls and Wills proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. From the 16th century onwards the more usual genealogical sources such as parish records, registers, manorial records and Quarter session records provide evidence the development of surnames and in particular how spelling variants developed.

The Black Death hit the lower classes of society in much greater numbers than the higher classes perhaps because they were more able to avoid or escape infected areas or because they have better access to what health care there was at the time. This resulted in a shortage of farmers and farmer labourers with many farms being left vacant. These were often taken over by families moving in from other parts of the country, spreading both their own surname and possibly the “trend” of adopting surnames into the northern areas.

However, with the development of surnames being so slow and varying in different areas of the country, where surnames are first recorded in lay subsidy rolls and poll taxes in the 14th century it is without any certainly that they can all in fact be described as hereditary surnames without the supporting genealogical evidence; some may have simply been bynames which were not passed to their children. One reason for this could be that the “surname” was given to them by an official who drew up the rolls of tax payers.

As already stated, it is not until the 15th century that it is thought most people of English origin had a fixed hereditary surname, even then, perhaps because of the recovering population after devastation of the Black Death, there are new surnames appearing in the Tudor subsidy rolls. It can however be said that the number of new surnames did not grow at the same rate as the growth in population because of the practice of hereditary surnames. There were of course always exceptions to this and families could still be found in the 16th and 17th centuries without a surname, particularly in the northern city of York and isolated areas of South Lancashire.

Essentially new surnames were being created throughout the centuries following their introduction until the 16th and 17th century when the written records of people became much more prevalent (parish registers, parish records, the array of non-conformist records, legal records, government and official records etc.).

But how were surnames adopted? In a variety of ways.

Many names brought over by the Normans (both at the time of the Conquest and by later immigrants) were anglicised through the centuries. For example “-ville” would be replaced with “-field” so Grenville became Greenfield, Semerville became Somerfield. Some names such as Beauchamp and Guillaume (amongst many) were altered for ease of spelling and pronunciation by the English, again being spelt phonetically. So Beauchamp became Beecham and Guillaume became various forms of William.

French-Norman personal names began to be adopted by English families and this was to the decline of earlier Anglo-Saxon personal names. It is interesting therefore to note that many surnames in the 14th century were formed from Anglo-Saxon personal names which were no longer in use suggesting these were adopted initially as bynames and eventually hereditary names as their use as personal names declined. Reaney states “A number of personal names which are not recorded in Old English after the eighth or ninth centuries reappear in Middle English. Some of these names are evidence only by their occurrence as surnames, others by their first record in the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century”. He goes on to set out three pages of Anglo-Saxon personal names which survive in modern surnames, e.g. Grente (Grant), Eadweard (Edward), Ealdrœd (Aldred, Allred), Herewearld (Harold). This demonstrates one way in which names have come and gone and been adapted/anglicised through the centuries.

Patronymic/Matronymic surnames

Bynames and resulting hereditary surnames adopted from personal names are usually patronymic, that is, they are from the personal names usually of the father. A much smaller number were matronymic, that is, they are from the personal names of the mother.

There are a variety of patronymic surnames:

  • Those which are taken exactly from the personal name such as Thomas, Owen, Duncan, and usually formed prior to the 13th century;
  • Those where a personal name has been suffixed, most commonly with “-son” as in my maiden name of Richardson. These type of surnames were mostly commonly found in northern regions of England (such as Yorkshire (my native county)) and could also be formed from hypocoristic personal names, that is short forms of names such as Dick (for Richard) becoming Dickson or Dixon. It is said they were formed between the late 13th and mid-14th century largely amongst small free tenants or unfree tenants who were in the greater numbers in the norther regions;
  • Those where a possessive “-s” was added to a personal name such as Richards. These type of surnames were most commonly found in southern regions of England (such as the South East Midlands, East Anglia, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire) and their history and growth parallels that of “-son” in the northern regions. Kinley goes so far as to suggest “There was in fact something in the nature of a boundary running across the north Midlands, to the north of which surnames ending in ‘-son’ became numerous, and to the south of which surnames in ‘-s’ became common”;
  • From those with a possessive “-s” we also get names ending in “-x” when such names have become written, e.g. Dix, Rix;
  • Those where personal names such as Ellis and Henry, Will and Adam with the suffixes “-cock” and “-kin” added to hypocoristic version of them i.e. Elcock and Hancock, Wilcock, Wilkin, and Adcock, Atkin. Such suffixes were found in all regions from the mid-13th century usually in those of the lower classes as with the cases of “-son” and “-s” above;
  • Those where a personal name has been prefixed with “Fitz-” (from the French fils de) “Mac-”/”Mc-” (Ireland (prefixed to father’s name), Gaelic parts of Scotland, Isle of Man) , “O-” (Ireland prefixed to grandfather’s name);
  • Those personal names originating in Wales, although having now spread throughout Britain, which were originally prefixed with “Ap-” (where the name began with a consonant) or “Ab-” (were the name began with a vowel) meaning “son of” e.g. Ap Roger (son of Roger), Ab Adam (son of Adam). Such names were common in Wales until the 16th century after which many ‘dropped’ the “A” leaving surnames beginning with “P” or “B” such as Price/Pryce/Pryse from Ap Rhys and Bowen from Ab Owen;

Patronymic surnames, in the early years as I have stated above were more likely to be bynames not inherited thus John may have been known as Richardson because he was the son of Richard, but his own sons were more likely to have been known as Johnson, son of John. Clearly this poses some difficulty for the genealogist in trying to trace this family back beyond the first ancestor with the known hereditary surname. Unfortunately, as yet I have not traced my Richardson ancestors beyond the mid-19th century, although not through the lack of records, through the lack of time to conduct my own family research! Interestingly though the Richardson ancestors I have traced to date are in the northern counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire where it appears the surnames is most likely to have originated.

The way in which patronymic surnames evolved does mean that when studying the origins of such names, there is highly unlikely to be one origin and it is almost certain that not all families with the same patronymic surname will be related no matter how far the surname can be traced back even where the families were from the same area. This is largely the result of the decreasing number of personal names in the early years of the development of bynames into hereditary names as discussed above.

Matronymic names should also be mentioned, albeit they were adopted as bynames and surnames in much fewer numbers and most likely where the mother was an heiress; or possibly where the child was illegitimate (although until the 18th century it was more likely that fathers would acknowledge such children with the child taking the father’s name). Matronymics were also ‘adapted’ by the addition of suffixes and prefixes in the same was as patronymics, e.g. “Emmot” from Emma, “Fitzmeriet” from Meriet and “Margisson” from Margery.

Place name surnames

Anglo-Saxon Place Names

Bynames and Surnames also developed from place-names (locative surnames), most of which have developed since the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the most obvious names in this category are those ending in “-ham”, “-ton”, “-by”, “-thorpe”, “-ford”, “-holme”, “-mouth” etc which are frequently endings of place-names. However not all are so obvious:

  • Spelling of place-names themselves have changed, in much the same way as language and surnames have changed through pronunciation and spelling particularly given many of these types of surnames were adopted from place-names in the 12th to the 14th centuries;
  • Place-names have come and gone – many locative name originate from villages, hamlets and small homesteads which no longer exists, particularly following “the conversion of arable to pasture and the enclosure of open fields, mostly in the period from about 1450 to 1550”
  • There maybe/may have been more than one place with the same name.

Care therefore needs to be taken when researching locative surnames, in particular consulting old maps from as close to the period in which the earliest form of the surname is known. Locative surnames do not appear to have been more popular in one area or another, although different areas may have had their own characteristics. For example, the ending “-thwaite”  is most often found in West Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Lake District (of Norwegian influence) whilst “-thorpe” is most often found in areas to the East of the Pennines (of Danish influence).

Further, some names which appear to be locative may come from a different origin altogether i.e. origins from a personal name or an occupational name (see later). Kinley refers to the surname Arnold which could be from Arnold in Nottinghamshire, Arnold in North Yorkshire or indeed from a personal name; also the surname Stirrop which could be from Styrrup in Nottinghamshire or could be an occupational name.

It must also be remembered that locative names may derive from French place-names, particularly where their origins are in the first century or so following the Norman Conquest as discussed earlier.

Topographical surnames

Did your ‘Wood’ ancestors live near a wood?

Related to locative names are those which originate from topography, that is, from a feature of the land where a person lives, both natural and man-made e.g. hill, bridge, wood etc. Many of these type of names were formed in a similar way to patronymic names, by the use of suffixes. The most common suffixes included“-er” as in “Bridger” and “-man” as in “Bridgeman” both of which could be also be of occupational origin i.e. someone who worked on bridges. Other examples include Brooker/Brookman, Churcher/Churchman, Forder and Hilman etc.

Topographical bynames and surnames may also have the possessive “-s” or the suffix “-son” added again similar to patronymic names. Such variations are more commonly found from the beginning of the 16th century although a small number can be found in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is often the case that earlier versions of the surname for the same family are without the “-s” adding to the complication for genealogists of tracing the earlier ancestors. Such plural endings on names often arose where there were a number of the topographical feature in one area, i.e. more than one bridge close to where a person lived, possibly they lived between two bridges etc.

Prepositions were also often used with topographical names, more so than with any other type of surname, although they could be found with locative names too. The most common prepositions is thought to be “atte” as in “atte Bridge” and “atte” Wood. But other examples include “under”, “over”, “by”, “beneath” and “above”. They were often, in the early days, particularly before the 15th century, in the French equivalent, such as “de”, “de la”, “de le” and “del”. Most of these prepositions began to be ‘dropped’ or ‘merged’ in the 14th and 15th centuries, thus producing modern versions such as Atbridge/Attbridge and Attwood/Atwood.

Occupational surnames

Occupations also gave rise to an array of bynames and surnames, including those holding certain state or church office such as Abbot, Constable, Bishop, Sheriff etc. and ranks or status in society such as Freeman, Burgess, Knight, Mayor, Lord etc. Occupational bynames and surnames are perhaps amongst the earliest to become established, an obvious way to distinguish people with the same name if they had different occupations, this is particularly so for the most popular occupations such as smiths (locksmith, blacksmith etc), butchers, bakers, taylors, cooks, turners, millers etc. As Kinley states “In most villages there would be only one or two smiths, one or two tailors, and so forth, so that the occupations in question were sufficiently distinctive to mark out a man from his fellow villagers, hence were suitable for use as surnames”.

Occupation names however are often not that obvious:

  • Regional variations – different names were often used for the same occupation in different parts of the country. For example, “Brewer and Brewster, Deemer and Dempster (‘judge’), Dyer and Dyster or Dexter, Fuller and Folster, Kember, Kemster or Kempster (a ‘comber’ of wool or flax), Hollier and Hollister, Lister and Litster, Palliser and Pallister (maker of palings), Sanger and Sangster (‘singer’), Shaper and Shapster (‘tailor’ or ‘seamstress’), or Webber and Webster”;
  • Arising from different languages – Latin, Welsh, Gaelic, French;
  • They can be confused with topographical names as in Bridger discussed above, oher examples given by Kinley include “Bedster” more likely to be from a Sussex village now lost, and “Docker” more likely to be from Docker in Cumbria;
  • One could be forgiven for thinking my married name of “Pettyfer” is from the French  “Petit Four”, I must admit this was my first thought, deriving from someone who made them, how wrong I was! It is in fact from the French pied de fer (iron foot) so from a nickname (see below) or occupation (a foot soldier);
  • They could be names of “tools” of a trade rather than the occupation itself. Reaney uses the examples of a metal worker who “could be called both Seintier or Bellyeter” from the type of bells he made and “William le Pinour ‘maker of combs’ was also called le Horner from the horn he used”. Also included are names such as “Kitchen”, “Kitchener”, “Buttery” and “Hallman”.

Nickname surnames

Bynames and surnames were also ‘created’ from “nicknames” or “pet names”. These are generally said to be amongst the fewest in surnames today as many of the medieval nicknames ‘died out’. Amongst them today are:

  • Those deriving from physical appearance include surnames today such as Little, Short, Small, Little and colours such as Brown, Black, White, Grey, Gray and Reed, Reid and Read (from red) (colours of hair or complexion) but not Green which is more likely of a locative or topographical origin;
  • Those deriving from personal habits, mental and moral characteristics, e.g. “Blessed”, “Curtis” (from Courteous), “Good”, “Goodchild”, “Treadwell” and “Proud”. Many such names are originally derived from their French counterpart such as “Bonifant” (bon enfant – good infant).

Amongst nicknames are also those deriving from:

  • nature i.e. from mammals, birds and fish such as “Lamb”, “Finch” and “Gurnard”;
  • Seasons and festivals i.e. “Summer”, “Christmas”
  • “oaths, greetings, or similar expressions”

With an increasingly widespread use of hereditary surnames, one would be forgiven to think that tracing a family would be made easier. But this may not the case. Why? Because surnames were adopted and changed in a variety of ways over time, many of which have already been discussed above. However the tracing of surnames becomes even more complicated if we consider the impact of pronunciation and the spelling of surnames before spelling became standardised. 

Two other reasons why names changed or varied also need to be considered by the genealogist:

Families themselves may have changed the spelling and pronunciation to either distinguish them amongst others with a popular name (Smith/Smythe, Taylor/Tayleure) or in the lower classes to make them sound a more distinguished family.

It may also be the case that families chose to change their own surname completely choosing a pleasanter name, this is particularly so if the origins of the surname was as a nickname. For example, Charles Bardsley provides an array of examples under the heading “Nicknames from Peculiarities of Disposition— Objectionable”, including:

“‘ribaldry’ …. that which is foul- mouthed in expression….. A ‘ribaud’ or ‘ribaut’ belonged to the very scum of society. He was a man who hung on to the skirts of the nobility by doing all their more infamous work for them”;

“‘Robert le Lewed,’ or ‘William le Lewed,’ is also lost to our directories, and certainly would be an unpleasant appellation in the nineteenth century”;

“‘Robert le Sot,’ or ‘Maurice Drun-card,’ or ‘Jakes Drynk-ale,’ or ‘Geoffrey Dringke- dregges,’ or ‘Thomas Sourale’.

A more unorthodox reason but not unknown was for an individual in a Will to make it a condition of inheritance that the legatee take on the testator’s surname. This may often be the case if the testator has no direct descendants to carry on the family name and a more distant relative is to inherit. John Titford refers to two well-known families:

“Florence Nightingale’s father, William Edward Shore, who abandoned his own surname and became Nightingale in 1815 on inheriting the Derbyshire estates of his mother’s uncle, Peter Nightingale, and that of Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who took the surname of Knight by Royal Licence in 1812 when he inherited and estate from his father’s cousin, Thomas Knight.”

Alias surnames

Lastly surname aliases can cause much confusion and could result in the individual being recorded under different surnames. For example, Smith alias Jones could be recorded as Smith or Jones or Smith-Jones with any one of the three names being used in different documents/records to identify the same person. This was often the case where a landowner held land in more than one location, he may be named after one of the locations alias the other and vice versa in the second location e.g. James York alias Pickering/John Pickering alias York.

An alias may also result from different spellings of the surname, e.g. “James Roides alias Rodes; Simon Woodhouse alias Wydis, and John Clegge otherwise Clagge”.

It is clear from the above discussion that the origins and evolution of surnames is far from straight forward and the genealogist should always bear in mind how a surname may have changed through the centuries. The further back in time the research the more variants the Genealogists needs to be aware there may be and be prepared to search all known/possible variables in an attempt to continue the ancestral line, including potential alternative surnames bearing in mind any other history of the family. It is also important to remember that where a surname has varied particular care will need to be taken to ensure it is the correct family line and not another family with a similar/same name. The more and varied records which are researched, checked and compared, the more accurate the research will be.

Sometimes it can be difficult to work out what variants there may be and useful resources to help are Dialect dictionaries and in particular Surname dictionaries such as:

P.H. Reaney & R.M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2005)

J. S. Titford The Penguin Dictionary of British Surnames (Penguin Books 2009)

C.W. Bardsley A Dictionary of English and Welsh Surnames with American Instances (Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co. 1967) (available on the Internet Archive website)

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What dates do Family historians need to know

Whether you are a hobbyist or professional genealogist there are key dates when events and government interventions affected the type of and content of those research documents which provide the basis of any family tree research: parish registers, census records and civil registration records.

So what are they?

Parish Registers

1537 Parish registers first “officially” introduced

1597 Bishops Transcripts of parish registers introduced

1641 – 1660 Civil War and Interregnum including:

1653 Marriage Act – marriage by Banns only

1657 Marriage Act – marriage licences restored

1666 Burial in Woollen Act

1694 Marriages, Births and Deaths Tax – to 1706

1752 Change from Julian Calendar to Gregorian Calendar

1754 Lord Hardwick’s Marriage Act – separate marriage registers

1765 Dade Registers

1783 The Stamp Act – repealed 1794

1812 Rose’s Act – separate birth and burial registers and age at death to be recorded in burial registers

Civil Registration 

1837 Civil Registration introduced – records of the Home Office

1874 Legal penalties introduced for none registration of births

1911 Mothers maiden name to be included in the GRO birth index

1912 Both surnames of spouses to be included in the GRO Marriage index

1927 Adopted Children Register

1927 Still birth register introduced – Births and Deaths Registration Act

1984 GRO began to produce annual indexes rather than quarterly indexes

Parish registers continue to exist today for baptisms and burials, however with the GRO records are now the main source of information for births and deaths as they are the legally required records.

Census Records

1801 First decennial census introduced (numeric only)

1841 First decennial census to include Name, age (rounded down to nearest 5), occupation, whether born in current county

1851 Also included relation to head of household, marital status and place of birth. Rounding of ages dropped

1861 Census records become the responsibility of the General Register Office (GRO). includes economic status

1871 Includes whether imbecile, idiot or lunatic

1881 Includes language spoken (in Scotland)

1891 Includes language spoken (in Wales), whether employer, employee or independent

1901 Includes number of rooms (if less than 5), whether employer, worker, work from home or not

1911 First census where the household schedules are the primary census returns available to the public and the industry/service with which the worker is connected, how long married, how many children born, how many still living and how many have died, and whether any infirmity

1921 Census released on 6 January 2022 are again household schedules but include more information than the 1911 census. See my blog on the 1921 census for further information

There is a 100 years restriction rule in the release of census records and with the 1931 census records having been destroyed in the second world war and no census having been conducted in 1941 during the second world war, the next census to be released will be the 1951 census release in 2052 (unless restictions are changed)

1939 National Register is available as akin to a census but with much less information. See my blog on the 1939 National register

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The 1921 census: Taking your 20th century research further

The release of the 1921 census for England and Wales, the 13th census to be conducted in the UK, taken on 19th June 1921 has been much anticipated and caused a good deal of excitement amongst genealogists and family historians. Why? Because it was the first census to be conducted following the end of both the First World War and the Spanish flu pandemic and following the right to vote for women. This will be the last census to be released for 30 years. Whilst the census was conducted in 1931 the records were destroyed during World War Two and with no census being conducted in 1941 in the middle of World War Two the next census to be released to the public will be the 1951 census which will not be released until 2052.

Unlike many of the other census returns where there are gaps due to records been lost or damaged, the 1921 census returns are almost complete with only 0.35% of the collection being so severely damaged they could not be transcribed and there are no known missing volumes. The records should therefore provide an almost complete picture of the population on census day and may help fill in the details of where your ancestors were following World War One and what they were doing. The records being released, much like the 1911 census, are the household schedules completed by our ancestors and therefore provide us with evidence of their handwriting and thus their literary skills.

But what else will the 1921 census tell us about our ancestors?

The census will provide greater detail than any other census published. It includes those questions asked in the 1911 census:

  • Postal address
  • Name and surname
  • Relationship to head of Family
  • Age and sex
  • Marital status and length of marriage
  • How many children born alive, living and have died
  • Occupation, industry or service connected to
  • Whether an employer, employee of self-employed (own account)
  • Whether working at home
  • Birth place
  • Nationality
  • Infirmity
  • Signature of person completing the form (usually the head of the household)

but in addition, people were asked to provide:

  • Age in years and months – in previous census this has just been years
  • Marital status is expanded to include divorce (D) for those aged fifteen and over
  • Orphanhood was included for those under the age of fifteen recording if both parents were alive, their father was dead, mother was dead or both were dead
  • In respect of children, rather than being the number born living, alive and died, the total number was to be given followed by a cross in a box (numbered 1 to 15) representing the age of each child
  • For occupation/employment, those out of work were required to record such along with the details of their last employer; for those in work, the employers address (except for those in private employment such as domestic servants) was required

The additional questions asked in the 1921 census return provide an insight into the impact of World War One on one families and the population: 730,000 children were listed with “father dead” and 260,000 children with “mother dead”. Many more of these children would have also still been in education, the Fishers Education Act of 1918 extended free compulsory education to the age of fourteen.

It was the first census to acknowledge divorced as a marital status with 16,600 people describing themselves as such.

Our ancestor’s employment status and employers’ details may provide further insight into the economic status of the country. In 1921 the country was in economic turmoil with unemployment standing at 927,000 in January rising to 2.2 million by June. A miners strike began on 31st March 1921. Following the government’s decision to return the coal industry to private hands, having been under the control of the state drawing the First World War, had led to a reduction in wages for miners and coming out on strike which lasted three months, ending on 28th June, nine days after census day. The strike had failed to gain the support of the Transport and Rail Unions on what became known as Black Friday, the 15th April 1921.

Those ancestors working in agriculture would not have escaped economic turmoil, with 1921 suffering the worst drought on record up to that year, since 1788 when there was no rainfall for one hundred days, the drought ending with rainfall on 25th of June 1921.

This census will see many more women for the first time taking on traditionally men’s roles in the work force, a result of women needing to take on those roles during World War One when the men were away fighting. According to Find My Past’s “life in 1920’s Britain” blog (https://www.findmypast.co.uk/blog/history/life-in-1920s-britain) “The 1921 Census features the first female policewomen, as well as significantly more female barristers, medical professionals and architects than recorded a decade earlier in the 1911 Census”.

Those with military personnel ancestors at this time, may be interested to find where they were serving in the 1921 census. England was still fighting a war, a war much closer to home. At the time the census was taken, the Irish war of independence was continuing with a truce not being declared until almost a month after census day on the 11th of July with the Anglo Irish treaty being signed in London to give independence to the Irish Free State on the 6th of December 1921. With access to military records after 1921 being limited, the 1921 census which also holds information on those living in barracks and naval bases may provide the key to their ongoing military service at this time.

What if your ancestor is not found with the rest of the family? The 1921 census also holds information on those living in hospitals, workhouses and prisons and with more than 185,000 people listed in workhouses, 80,000 patients recorded in hospitals and over 11,000 inmates listed in prisons across England and Wales, your ancestors may be found here which may lead to further clues and records to explore your ancestor’s life further.

Below is a small insight into what else was happening in 1921.

The First World War was gone but not forgotten and on 15th May 1921 the British Legion was founded, followed on 11th of November 1921 by the very first official Poppy Day held in memory of all those who lost their lives serving in World War One.

The 1920’s are often described as ‘The Roaring Twenties’ despite the economic turmoil. Why? Because of advancing technology. In June 1921 the result of the horse race “The Derby” was announced live for the first time on the radio and a year later in 1922 the BBC began broadcasting and it was only five years later that the first public demonstration of television took place. Our ancestors may have been looking to the future and the excitement of being able to fly to other parts of the world – the first commercial flight (with one passenger) took place on 25th of August 1919 and by 1924 Imperial Airways Ltd (know British Airways) was formed although the seaside ‘staycation’ would have been the norm for the majority of our ancestors in 1921. This was also the era in which plastic surgery began to develop for cosmetic procedures following its development to treat injuries during World War One.

In entertainment, The golden age of cinema was beginning. 1921 saw the release of Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Kid”, the first film to exceed an hour with Charlie Chaplin himself visiting London on the 9th of September 1921 to be met by a crowd of thousands. 1921 also saw the opening of England’s first inland amusement park at Wickstead Park in Kettering. How many of our female ancestors would go on to become flapper girls as the 1920’s progressed?

With the above knowledge in hand, who are you looking forward to finding in the 1921 census?

For me it is my grandparents, in particular, my paternal grandmother because she was born only eight days before census day. My paternal grandfather was four years of age with my maternal grandparents being seven (grandfather) and six (grandmother) years old at the time of the census. Whilst I do know something about their lives around this time having found alternative records for their parents, such a trade directories, electoral rolls, first world war service records and family oral history, other then their birth records the 1921 census return will be the first official record in which they are listed.

I am also hoping it may solve a mystery of what happened to my maternal grandfather’s biological father (no father named on his birth certificate), confirmed through DNA and found living with my maternal grandfather and his mother in 1901 (she listed as his housekeeper!), in the 1911 census he is no longer with them and no further trace has been found. Was he listed with them again in 1921?

The census returns will be officially released on the Find My Past website on the 6th of January 2022 on a pay-per-view basis at a cost of £2.50 per transcribed record and £3.50 for an original record image. There will be a 10% discount for all 12 months ‘pro’ subscribers to Find My Past. The census returns will also be available for free to view at the National Archives.

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