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
- 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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