Forget the New Year countdown and the return of Big Ben’s bongs this year. Instead, like many other family historians, I’m counting the days down to 6 January 2022, the day which marks 1921 census release day. Its family clues and secrets have been hidden for over 100 years. But this is the day when they will finally be revealed.
But why are family and local historians so excited? What is its background? Why is it so important for family and local history? How can you access it?
I’ll try to answer those questions in this post.
This was the census conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, the Spanish flu pandemic and the introduction of voting rights for some women. It was a time of turmoil, upheaval and change.
The census was eventually taken on 19 June 1921, delayed for two months from its originally planned date of 24 April 1921, because of the state of emergency declared as a result of the coal miners’ strike.
Although care was taken to avoid holidays in the big industrial towns of the north, do be aware of the possibility the delay to the summer months may mean your family could be away from their expected residence.
What Information Will the Census Contain?
This census had the usual familiar mix of questions, but with some crucial omissions and additions from the 1911 Census. Questions included:
- Name and Surname;
- Relationship to the Head of Household;
- Age – in years and (in a difference to previous censuses) completed months, with those under one month noted as such;
- Marriage or Orphanhood – For those 15 and over this means single, married, widowed or if the marriage has been dissolved. For children under under 15 this includes details about which parents are living/dead;
- Birthplace and Nationality;
- Personal Occupation (including attending school), Employment and Place of Work;
- Married Men, Widowers and Widows also complete details about the number and ages of all living children and step children under 16 years of age, whether residing in the household or elsewhere.
The enumerator who collected the form was also responsible for recording the number of “living rooms” at the premises. And, for the first time, individuals in a household could also make separate confidential returns.
I’m disappointed that the so-called fertility question is missing from this census, with no information given about the number of completed years of marriage and the total number of children born within it, split between still living and dead. There question around blindness, deafness and dumbness has also gone.
But there are some big compensating questions. For example the changes to the questions around work will add a new family history component. This was introduced to find out about the travelling involved to get to a place of employment. The question around dissolved marriages is an interesting commentary about the recognition of increased availability of divorce. I am interested to see if any of my family is amongst the 16,682 people who declared themselves divorced on the returns. And, in light of the aftermath of the Great War and influenza pandemic, the recording of information for under 15s about whether both parents were alive or if either or both parents had died is a sad snapshot on the fragility of life.
If you want to familiarise yourself with the 1921 Census household form for England in advance of 6 January, you can download a copy here, courtesy of the ONS (Office for National Statistics) website.1
Why the Excitement with this Census Release?
All new major record releases are exciting. But for many the 1921 Census will be particularly special. From the poignant moment of seeing family members in a census for the first or last time, to finding out the impact the War had on family and community structures; to discovering the employment and possibly employers of their ancestors in this period of industrial strife, to where they were – and who they were with – on census night. Then there’s societal changes at the start of the Roaring Twenties, like the increase of divorce, and changes in the work of women from previous censuses. And not forgetting the inevitable disentangling of truth from mistakes and pure fiction in the entries of our ancestors – no, they were not always honest on official documents!
On the more humorous side, will there be any quirky, or protest, entries this time? And what will be the most unusual or unexpected occupation or name?
All this information, even these errors, half-truths and lies, will shed new light on the lives and characters of our ancestors – the type of information we family historians are constantly seeking.
Crucially, it is an excitement not to be repeated for another 30 years, because the next census release will not be until 2051, with the 1951 Census.
For many, this will be the last chance to experience the anticipation and thrill surrounding a census release. The highs of finding that missing piece of the family history puzzle, to simply finding out a little more about the lives of your ancestors. To the lows of will the site crash with the volume of hits?
My Census Plans
I have spent the Christmas period drawing up my family history census wish list.
I’m looking forward to the release on a personal family history level to find if my grandpa had made the move from Ireland to England at this point. If so, where was he living? And was he with family who had already made the move?
I also want to discover what various direct line ancestors and their families were doing. In particular, only three months before this census, my great grandfather died aged only 42. I want to see if there is any evidence of impact on his family. For example, were they still in the same home? Was the family still all together? Did my great grandmother have an occupation listed?
Also, being from a long line of coal mining ancestors, I want to see how many were still involved in the industry, especially given the census backdrop of a coal miners’ strike.
I have a wider interest in this census too, for my St Mary’s Batley One-Place Study. This focuses on the parish particularly in World War One, looking at not only those who served and died, but those who returned home, and the parish as a whole. I’m interested in seeing the impact both the war and the flu pandemic had on the parish population and family structures, with a particular interest in those families who had suffered war casualties. I’m also interested in any further Irish migration to the parish between 1911 and 1921. And I want to build up a bigger picture about employment in the parish. Batley was a significant textile town with the industry employing both men and women. The other major industry for the area was coal. Given this was the period of the coal miners’ strike, I want to see what impact this had on the census employment returns for the parishioners. Also, for returning military, was there a difference between their 1911 and 1921 employment? This, though, because of the scale, may be a longer-term plan based on a visit to one of the free access sites.
How Can I View the 1921 Census?
Now for the all-important administrative details about census access.
1. Who does this Census release cover?
• This release covers 38 million people in England and Wales. Technically the full scope of it is England & Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and the Armed Forces at sea or overseas (including in the nascent Irish Free State).
2. When can you access it?
• The launch date is 00.01 GMT on 6 January 2022.
3. Where can you access it?
• Online it will be available via commercial genealogy dataset provider Findmypast. They won the National Archives digitisation contract and have exclusivity for the 1921 census for up to three years. This will be the only online provider access during this period.
• In-person access of the digital images is available at The National Archives, Kew. The census will also be available via Findmypast at the Manchester Central Library, and the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
• If you are still unsure, professional genealogists (including me) are undertaking census lookups. This may prove more efficient, accurate, cost-effective and ultimately less stressful.
4. How much does it cost?
• You will be able to search the indexes on Findmypast for free. But a pay-per-view system will operate to actually view the transcripts and images. It costs £2.50 for every record transcript, and £3.50 for every original record image.
• If you are a 12-month Pro subscriber there is a 10% discount.
• Whether a transcription or image, purchasing the record of one individual will allow you to view the entire household’s census return in that purchased format. Unless that person was in an institution.
5. Can you access the 1921 Census for free?
• Yes. It will be available to view digitally at The National Archives at Kew. It is also available to view free via Findmypast at Manchester Central Library and the National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.
6. Which countries does the release cover?
• The release applies to England and Wales.
• Indexed images of the 1921 Scottish Census will be released on http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk and in the Scotlands People Centre, Edinburgh, in the latter half of 2022.
• The 1921 Census was not taken in Ireland due to the Irish War of Independence. Censuses in Ireland and Northern Ireland were conducted in 1926.
In addition, Findmypast has some useful information too https://www.findmypast.co.uk/1921-census
If you’re planning on going to Manchester Central Library to access the 1921 Census, the image below (posted on the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society Facebook page) gives some important information. It’s essential pre-visit planning reading.
I’ll end this post with some snippets from Yorkshire to get you in the census mood.
The Sheffield Independent and Sheffield Daily Telegraph newspapers for 21 June 1921, reported on the case of three census wanderers. On census night, Sheffield police were tasked with searching highways and by-ways to round up those living outside. The three men, brought before the magistrates on 20 June and charged with lodging out, or wandering abroad without visible means of subsistence, included George H Jerram, of no fixed abode. He was found at 12.30am asleep in one of the Tinsley Park coke ovens with only 5d in his possession. He could not afford any lodgings.
Jerram remarked that “he was lodging out in France from August, 1914, to April, 1920,” and since coming out of the Army had only worked five weeks.”2
The Chairman discharged him, giving him the opportunity to fill out his census form.
I wonder if he will appear?
The Yorkshire Post of 21 June 1921 had a reporter going round an industrial quarter of Leeds with a census enumerator. Someone asked: “We have not put the dog on the paper. Will that be all right?”
I wonder if pets will feature though, something I wrote about in an earlier census piece. Please click here if you want to read this, and the other quirky entries which have appeared in previous censuses.
However, a dismal story of unemployment and overcrowding also emerged in this Yorkshire Post piece.
- For example, an Irish woman and her brother (both single), their brother, sister-in-law, and seven children aged 3 to 19, living in four rooms, Three of the adults were out of work;
- A coal-hawker and a son assisting him, both out of work, two errand boy sons out of work, and five children attending school, with only one son (aged 20) working;
- An out-of-work boot riveter, his wife and six children, ranging from 23 years old downwards, living in three rooms.
Occupants were described as being terribly afraid they would be turned out of their squalid dwellings because of overcrowding. Authority could, and did, strike fear.
In Grimsby, forms revealed in one instance five families living in four rooms; in another seven families were in one house, with a further house consisting of eight families.
The Hull Daily Mail of 21 June 1921 reported on a census conundrum regarding a baby born after midnight but before 1am (British Summer Time), the equivalent of 11pm and midnight Greenwich mean time. Was the baby born too late for the census? No definite pronouncement was made, but the assumption was the system in operation at the time, British Summer Time, would govern such questions.
I wonder if anyone does have an example of a child recorded in this census who should technically not be?
And in an example of a potential missing entry, a correspondent’s letter appeared in the Halifax Daily Courier and Guardian of 25 June 1921. Essentially, a son completed the household form for his father (the head), himself, his sister, and his sister’s three children (two grandsons and a grand daughter of the household head). They all slept in the house on census night. However, when the enumerator collected the form, he said the grandchildren should not be recorded and crossed them out. The correspondent was concerned they would not now be counted.
Again, some of us may therefore have difficulty in finding people we know should be there. It may simply be down to a mis-transcription, or not adopting the correct research strategies. But it could also really be down to an omission, or deliberate dissembling to disguise identity. This is an example where a professional researcher may be able to help.
So get ready for 6 January, and the big day in the family history world. I hope you find what you’re looking for.
1. For Wales and Monmouthshire, there was an extra question for each person (over three years) on whether they spoke English and Welsh, English only or Welsh only; and for Scotland (when that is released) watch out for the extra questions about whether each person (over three years) spoke Gaelic only and also whether they were entitled to benefits under the National Insurance (Health) Acts;
2. Sheffield Independent, 21 June 1921;