Census unearthed: widows and orphans in 1921 


27 April 2022
From a male-female population imbalance to an increase in the number of widows and orphans, newly digitised county and district level statistics from the 1921 Census show changes after World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Just three years on from the end of World War I and in the wake of the Spanish flu pandemic, the 1921 Census took a snapshot of life in England and Wales and found a population forever changed.  

For the first and only time, information was gathered on orphanhood status, offering insight into the possible effects of war and pandemic. The 1921 Census was also the first to recognise divorce as a marital condition.

QUICK LINK: search the 1921 census at FindMyPast

Read on for new research from the Office for National Statistics, on newly-digitised county and district level statistics from the 1921 Census for England and Wales.

More than 11% of all women in 1921 were widows

The 1921 Census recorded that just over 11% of all females aged 15 and older were widows, compared with 10% of the same in the 1911 Census; a 1% increase. 

A larger difference was evident when comparing younger, narrower age groups of females. For example, 1.3% of women aged 25 to 34 years were widowed in 1911. By 1921, that had increased to 3.2% of females in the same age group. 

For men in 1921, the proportion was smaller, where 5% of all males aged 15 and above and 0.9% aged 20 to 39 were widowed. 

Not all widowed spouses recorded in the census would have lost their husband or wife through war or pandemic, but for comparison, 239,000 widows and 393,000 children received a war pension in 1921 in Britain.

Around 228,000 people were estimated to have died in Britain from Spanish flu a large number of them fit and healthy. It is thought that in the UK, the virus was spread by soldiers returning home from the trenches in northern France during World War I.

Interactive: how many widows lived in your county?

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Female population of England and Wales outnumbered males in 1921 across all ages

In 1921, the number of females in England and Wales outnumbered males by 19.8 million to 18 million respectively across all ages. This compares with 18.6 million females and 17.4 million males in 1911. 

The imbalance between males and females in 1921 was most pronounced among those in their 20s and 30s.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, [government schemes existed to encourage ‘surplus women’ to emigrate to other parts of what was then the British Empire, to try and redress the imbalance].[7] 

This imbalance in the number of females to men revealed, in unrounded figures, that in 1921 there was 1.1 female for every 1 male, compared to 1.07 women to every 1 male in 1911.

Orphans counted in the census for the first and only time

Details of orphanhood and dependency status was vital in a post-pandemic and post-conflict 1921. It helped prepare the financial framework of the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, 1925. 

This would have been the first and only time that questions about orphanhood status were asked about children aged 14 and under in the 1921 Census. 

That information, laid bare in black and white on the census form, showed for the first time how many orphans there were in England and Wales. 

The two cold words on the census form, “father dead”, meant life without the “head of the family” for 730,845 children, as recorded in the 1921 Census.  Their absence would leave a lasting legacy for generations to come. 

The number of children recorded as “mother dead” was 261,094, almost three times fewer than those without a father. Those who lost both parents numbered 55,245.

Data taken from the second instalment of the Census Unearthed series published by the Historic Censuses Digitisation Project, as part of their statistical archaeology work to make the statistics from 1921 through to 1961 accessible.