The 1921 Census: why it's important


31 December 2021
Discover the clues about your ancestors in the 1920s with the forthcoming release of the 1921 Census of England and Wales on 6 January from Findmypast and The National Archives
Enumerating a population reeling from the after-effects of global conflict and pandemic, suffering from acute and rising unemployment and housing shortages, and experiencing civil war on its doorstep in Ireland - the 1921 Census is a record that was taken at a tumultuous time in our families’ lives. Helen Tovey looks at backdrop against which the 1921 Census was taken, the challenges faced at the time, and some of the discoveries made by this important soon-to-be-released record about the population.

Nowadays, however, online census collections are absolutely central to the research of today’s family historians and I’m sure most of us couldn’t imagine ancestor-sleuthing without them. So it is thrilling to have a brand new census collection to be able to explore for clues about our families.

The last census we'll see for decades

It is, too, a bitter-sweet release, as researchers of ancestors in England and Wales will not get sight of a further new census collection until the 100-year closure period for the 1951 Census has expired, i.e. not until 2052 most likely. Those with ancestors in Scotland can rejoice in the fact that the 1931 Census for Scotland has survived the passage of time, so far, and for Ireland the 1926 Census is the next big census date to remember.

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Find out more about the 1921 Census:

The 1921 Census is still a few weeks away from release (6 January), so now is a good time - before we immerse ourselves in the records - to look a little at the the bigger picture: what did the 1921 Census reveal about the population, and what was life like in the year it was taken?

The newspapers of the period 

The newspapers are well worth reading, particularly in the lead up to the census, remembering to read coverage from at least March 1921, because at that time the census was still scheduled to take place on the night of Sunday 24 April 1921 – so the newspapers were keenly covering the anticipated Spring census taking.

An unprecedented decision

Through April we can read of the de-railing of the census plans, as first the census of Ireland (announced in the papers on 1 April) was delayed, and then that of England, Wales and Scotland followed suit – its postponement announced on the afternoon of 14th April in the House of Commons by Sir Alfred Mond, and rapidly reported in the papers. This was the first time in its history that the census had been postponed.

Why was the census postponed/cancelled?

We speak now of the ‘postponement’ of the 1921 Census, but when the papers were breaking the news of the Irish census derailment on 1 April, and subsequently that of the English, Welsh and Scottish on 14 April this may have felt more like a ‘cancellation’, which indeed for Ireland it turned out to be.

It wasn’t until 26 April 1921 that the announcement was given by the General Register Office, Somerset House, that the census was to be taken on the night of Sunday 19 June (as reported, for instance in the Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 27 April 1921, on page 3).

The reasons for the disruption to the census plans were complex and many. From our perspective, those of our ancestors who had survived the Great War, and the subsequent Spanish Flu, were the lucky ones. Yet life was still incredibly hard. In February 1921, for example, unemployment was at 1,000,000 but by 10 June that same year it had more than doubled to 2,200,000. And these figures are set against a population half the size of our population today. In Ireland, meanwhile, the exhortations by Sinn Fein, encouraging the population to boycott the census meant that it was deemed not worth taking it as the figures would have been too inaccurate. In addition to which, conflicts surrounding the Irish War of Independence were also seeing deaths on the streets of both Ireland and Britain. 

Civil war & miners' strikes: Spring 1921

A look at just a few of the events in Britain and Ireland in March and April 1921 give a flavour of the historical backdrop to the times.
Since January 1919 the Irish War of Independence had been waging, and 19 March 1921 had seen British troops killed in the Crossbarry Ambush, also known as the Battle of Crossbarry, Co Cork, where at least 10 British soldiers and 3 IRA were killed. This was just one of several incidents. 
Industry was also suffering. The Government had controlled the coal mines during wartime but on returning them to their private owners, the owners began to issue drastic wage cuts – just shillings and pence as we may see it, but felt by our ancestors as pay cuts of 10, 20% and more. Faced with these cuts, on 31 March members of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain called on the National Union of Railwaymen and the National Transport Workers’ Federation to join it in strike action (they didn’t, but the fact that they might join was feared and much anticipated by the Government). The Government declared a state of emergency under the Emergency Powers Act 1920, and the armed forces Reserves were mobilized. So, as you can see, the census wasn't a priority in the Spring of 1921.

Back on track

That the 1921 Census for England, Wales and Scotland went ahead, genealogists today can be thankful. The forms that had been printed for the April distribution were handed out, and from 11 June enumerators set forth with their packets of papers going from door to door, ready for census night 19/20 June 1921.

Find out more about the 1921 Census:

1921 Census fascinating facts

Free archive access to the 1921 Census

1921 Census online conference - book your ticket today. Conference starts 6.30pm Thurs 6th January

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