The 1921 Census Has Arrived

I believe is that this is the census that will confirm or refute so much that present day genealogists, both amateur and professional have established about their grandparents and great grandparents. These are people whose stories are often thought to be known by the present generation, but about whom many have lingering doubts or uncertainties.

What information is in the 1921 census?

This is easily the most anticipated release of genealogical records for a decade, that is since the 1911 census was released. The 1921 census was taken on the 19th June of that year and consists of 28,152 bound volumes which stretch for 1.6 linear kilometres of shelving. It is a snapshot of one night in a huge number of households returns and contains detailed information on close to 38 million individuals, many of whom fought in the Great War which had ended just less than 3 years before.

It was an ambitious project. It attempted to record every household, every vessel, institution and overseas residence that was part of England and Wales in 1921. There are sections enumerating the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It covers all merchant ships in English and Welsh territorial waters, and all ships of the Royal Navy and the British Army as well as, for the very first time of course, RAF units stationed overseas. Some units on occupational duties following the First World War, or based in territories newly under British administration as a result of the war, are also recorded. So you will find soldiers and other personnel that you may have felt should be home by now, but who were in fact still abroad.

How does the 1921 census differ from earlier versions?

It provides even more detail than the previous census taken in 1911, which itself was a step forward from the 1851 – 1901 censuses.

The details recorded for each household member person in the 1911 census were:

  • Name and surname
  • Relationship to head of family
  • Age (with separate columns for male and female)
  • Marital condition
  • Number of years married (married women only)
  • Children born to present marriage, still living, who have died (married women only)
  • Personal occupation
  • Industry/service with which worker is connected
  • Employment status
  • Birthplace
  • Nationality (if born abroad)
  • Any infirmity

In 1921 the following information was requested of each person:

  • Name of person
  • Relationship to head of household
  • Age – this was now required as years and completed months, rather than just years as in previous censuses
  • Sex
  • If aged 15 or over, whether single, married or divorced
  • If under age 15, whether parents are living, “both alive”, “father dead”, “mother dead” or “both dead”
  • Birthplace, county and town or parish (or country plus state, province or district for persons born abroad)
  • If born abroad, nationality
  • Whether attending school or other educational establishment
  • Trade
  • Employer
  • Place of work
  • Number and ages of living children or stepchildren under 16

The 1921 census required the householder to provide their place of employment, the industry and type of occupation, the materials they worked in and their employer’s name. Divorced individuals were noted as “D”. Almost three quarters of a million children were shown to have a deceased father as against just 260,000 with a late mother, which shows the impact of the First World War. Those in full time further education are noted and so too are the unemployed who had to provide the name of their last employer.

On the down side the “duration of marriage” question which pretty much provided a year of marriage was dropped. Nor was the total number of children question living or dead retained. This was the first census to be conducted under the 1920 Census Act, and so if it was not required specifically then no doubt the civil servants who composed the form did not include it.

The census had come a long way since the head counts of the early 19th century and further still than the mid century quantum leap of a census taken in 1851 which was the first to give precise ages, household relationships and an exact (if sometimes slightly inaccurate) place of birth.

There had been a few less informative censuses before 1851, notably the 1841 census and some local ones from earlier still but they were sporadic and by no means universal, usually just a headcount although some locally taken censuses might include a name and an age.

Is it free to access the 1921 census?

Mention of Findmypast begs the question: “okay, how much will they charge?”. Well who knows which subscription package they will put it in or whether they will use a credit system similar to the Scottish system of providing census data. They say you can search it for free but will need to pay for a transcription or image which sounds similar to the method used by Scotland’s People. A royalty will go to the National Archives, which is a good thing I feel. Also, if you can make it to the reading rooms of the National Archives in Kew you can view the images for free.

Another reason why this is such an important release is that you will have to wait another 30 years for the next census. We do have the 1939 National Register, which is a wonderful document that substitutes so well for the 1941 census which was not taken due to the Second World War. The National Register is also historical in its own right because it adds married surnames to young women and, by using area codes, shows where people moved to. It is unique because it was used as the base document for the NHS database of names right up until the time when computers began to rule this particular roost.

Unfortunately, the 1931 census was destroyed by a fire at the Office of Works in Hayes, Middlesex in December 1942. It was not caused by enemy action as is often reported. The Scottish census was not affected and Northern Ireland was enumerated in 1926 at the same time as the Irish Free State. No census was scheduled for 1931.

So the next census to be released after 1921 will be the 1951 census in 2051. A long wait indeed and all the more reason to be grateful for the 1939 National Register.