The 1921 Census of England and Wales

Happy New Year to you all!
Have you been looking at the 1921 Census?

In case there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know, the 1921 Census for England and Wales was released to the public on 6th January.  It includes the Isle of Man and Channel Islands; members of the Armed Forces (wherever in the world they were stationed, apart from Scotland); Merchant Navy and fishing vessels in port on the night of the census or returning over the following day or so; plus visitors, tourists and people in transit.

This census is particularly important for us as genealogists: there won’t be another until 1951.  The 1931 census was burned in a fire during the Second World War; and because of the war, no census was taken in 1941.  We do of course have the 1939 Register to plug the gap, but it’s sad to know we won’t have another census to look forward to for the next 30 years.

The 1921 Census was taken on 19th June 1921, having been postponed from 24th April following the declaration of a state of emergency owing to coal miners’ strike action.  This was a period of great social change, following the 1914-18 War and, mirroring our own time, the Spanish Flu epidemic.  The women’s suffrage movement of the previous decade had started to pay off, and some women had won the right to vote – although this still depended on the woman in question being a householder in her own right or the wife of a householder.  With the return of the men after the War, there was a growing expectation of ‘Homes Fit for Heroes’; while the women who had kept the factories going during the absence of their menfolk were dissatisfied with the expectation that they should return to their kitchens as if nothing had ever happened.

Societal changes mean changes in the questions asked.  I was sad to see the loss of the 1911 questions regarding length of the present marriage and number of children born to that marriage including whether still living or since died.  Apparently this was removed because so many responded incorrectly – but I’m sure you’ll agree that their wonderful ‘incorrect’ answers gave us as genealogists so much information! The long-standing question about infirmity and nature of that infirmity has also been removed.  On the 1921 Census these are replaced with questions about:

  • age ‘in years and months’;
  • for children under 15, whether one or both parents has died;
  • the actual employer and work address;
  • an additional category for marital status: Married, Single, Widowed and now for the first time, Divorced;
  • for Welsh households, a question about language spoken. 

Of course, it isn’t just genealogists who have been eagerly awaiting the publication of these records.  While the main purpose of any census is to inform contemporary social policy development once the data is analysed and condensed into statistics, one hundred years on it’s time for local and social historians to do likewise.  They will take more of an overview; we, of course, are interested in the individual entries.

The contract to publish the 1921 Census was awarded to FindMyPast, who have exclusive rights for the first three years.  After this it’s likely also to be available on other genealogy subscription sites.  Initially, there’s an extra charge for viewing the records, but as with the 1939 Register, these charges will be removed when FindMyPast have recouped part of their investment.

That investment has been considerable: a team of specialists have worked for three years to digitise almost 38 million entires.  Between them they have carried out conservation work (repairing tears, ironing out creases, dealing with mould and insects) as well as scanning each household schedule – or photographing it if it was considered too fragile to scan.  After that each record was returned to its place within one of the 30,000 ledgers, and the digitised version of each record was transcribed and indexed.  You can learn more in the following short video.

Some family history enthusiasts are upset at the charges: currently £2.50 to view the transcript and £3.50 to view the original.  I’m not: I appreciate the huge amount of work involved.  There is no way the public sector could have financed this. Inviting tenders from the private sector was the only option; and without their investment this simply would not have become available to us.  That said, you can access it for free (via FindMyPast) if you can get to The National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth or Manchester Central Library.  The rest of us will have to make decisions, prioritise and find ways to keep costs down.  I decided to search only for direct ancestors (six households for me, five for my husband’s family) and to access only the original document.  For this you get the front and back of the household schedule (2 pages).  As a full FindMyPast subscriber I received a 10% discount on the £3.50 charge – hence eleven lots of £3.15, total £34.65.  There are other households I’d like to see but these will have to wait until FindMyPast remove the charges. In spending £34.65 I feel I’ve contributed to helping them recoup their investment.

Why choose the original rather than the cheaper transcript?  Because the original is always preferable.  Transcript errors do happen – and feedback to date suggests the transcriptions on the 1921 Census are the weakest link, which is a shame because a dodgy transcription of individuals’ names and birthplaces also impacts upon the efficacy of the index, hence search results.  That aside, I want to see my ancestors’ handwriting – and the errors they sometimes make when completing these forms can often give us other information and even an insight into their personalities. 

Of course when you’re paying to view individual documents it’s really important that you don’t rush in and pay for a record that turns out not to be your ancestors.  It’s therefore vital that you understand how the FindMyPast search engine works – it’s far more precise than Ancestry’s, and you have to be more precise in the search terms.  So here are a few tips:

First, with all this focus on the charges, it’s important to note that SEARCHING IS FREE. You can search the 1921 index all day long and it won’t cost you a penny. When it came online at one minute past midnight on 6th January I spent 30 minutes clicking around just looking for my families before I went to bed. I didn’t make my purchases until the next day, but using the hovering cursor technique (see below) I was able to draw upon the forename combinations to be sure that I had found the correct family. In other words, at the very least you can place your family and some specific members of that family in a certain locality without paying a penny.

FindMyPast have put a separate gateway into the 1921 Census on their header bar.  Click on this and you can immediately input name, birthyear and location.  However, this search will focus only on the exact information you give, so if for whatever reason the correct record is not returned you need to ask the search engine to be more flexible.  For this you go back to that first 1921 Census page and click on Advanced Search.

Now you can ask the search engine to offer surname variants, provide a span of birthyears, separate out the likely location in 1921 from the birthplace, and search with a variety of other terms.  You could choose to leave the location blank, or you can give a location and then gradually extend out from it, up to a maximum of 100 miles.

You can also use wildcards: for example since my surname is often mis-spelled (and I have an errant great grandfather whose Life Purpose was To Avoid The Census Enumerator By Any Means Available) I might try Heppen*, Hepp*, Hep*, H?p* and so on.  (No, it didn’t work; I still haven’t found him…..)  This is also useful if you have ancestors with foreign names that could easily be mis-transcribed – or indeed if your ancestors were gradually anglicising/ changing spellings of their names. 

Linked to the above – if your first search doesn’t succeed try a different family member – perhaps one with the most unusual name or (in the case of an immigrant family) the one with the most phonetic forename. When searching for one of my husband’s families I tried several family members before finding one of the children with the name spelled sufficiently as expected as to be recognisable by the search engine.

Once you have your selection of returned records move your cursor along the line, to the right, where you’ll find an icon for Record Transcript and another for Record Image.  Hover (don’t click!) your cursor over one of these icons, and you’ll see how many people are at the address, together with the first names of up to three of them.  You can use this information to help you decide if you have the right household.  Before buying I sometimes searched for several family members, checking the name combinations, before deciding this was definitely my family.

Something else you can do in Advanced Search is give priority to a certain search term. For example, you could input name (e.g. Ethel Jones) and birthyear (e.g. 1889) but leave everything else blank. Now you’ll get all the Ethel Jones’s born that year throughout the entire country. Or you could input Ethel Jones and Birmingham but leave the year blank – giving all the Ethel Jones’s in Birmingham across a wide span of ages. For my master enumerator-avoiding great grandfather I tried leaving all blank apart from name (with various wildcards) and his occupation, which was cooper. No…. nothing. But you might have more luck.

Paying to access the original image gives you more than the two sides of the household schedule your ancestors completed. At the bottom right of the page, click on ‘Open Filmstrip’. From here, once the charges are removed, we will be able to whizz backwards and forwards through the filmstrip with gay abandon, to see who the neighbours are – sometimes family are living very close by. But for now, there are additional features we can see. With the filmstrip opened, click on ‘Extra Materials’. These include the Enumeration District cover, a description of its boundaries and streets included, and a map.

If you’ve already been searching for family members on the 1921 Census I hope you’ve had some good finds.

The future of the census

There has been talk in the media recently about the possibility that the upcoming 2021 census for England and Wales will be the last one.  Rising costs are cited, with an estimate that next year’s census, despite being the first to be taken primarily online, is likely to cost £1 billion.

For us as genealogists and family historians, the census is one of the most important records, providing us with a ten-yearly check-in on each of our ancestral families, and a useful comparison against birth, baptism, marriage and death records.  There is no doubt that the period from 1911 to 1841 is the most straightforward period for genealogical research.

Of course, the current discussion is a reminder that the census never existed for our benefit.  Those benefits to us are just a happy side effect.  Its purpose was, and remains, to help the government and local authorities to plan services with a reasonably up to date snapshot of what the country looks like.  With every passing decade, as our society has developed, become more complex and diverse, and as our attitude towards providing for diverse needs has changed, the questions on the census have become ever more detailed.  Nevertheless, as a genealogist, I was mortified when I first heard the headlines.

Digging around a little deeper, I found that in fact no decision has been taken about the future of the census.  Indeed Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK’s National Statistician and head of the Office for National Statistics, has said he would only recommend its termination if he finds a better option.

The issue seems to be centred not just around cost, but also around the effectiveness of a decennial snapshot when the reality is constant and accelerating demographic change.  The possibilities are therefore being explored of collecting the same sort of data but via other existing and constantly updated sources, such as GP registrations, council tax records and driving licences.

Counter to these arguments is the fact that demographers consider the census the ‘gold standard’ of population records.  They point to the inferiority of existing alternative record sources as the means for demographic mapping and planning, voicing concerns about, for example, the administrative difficulties in keeping lists up to date.  Their suggestion is that while their use would be beneficial in supplementing the richness of the decennial census, thereby overcoming the concern about the lengthy gap in updating data in an age of constant change, they are no match for the richness of the census data.  They also point out that as online census return becomes the norm, future costs should reduce.

The review is ongoing and Professor Sir Ian Diamond will give his opinion by 2023.  Ultimately, it will be the government that decides.

What might this mean for the future of family history and genealogy as a hobby?  Well, of course our own research will not be affected, but for future generations, tracing families could be more difficult.  At the very least it would be different, and I draw comfort from the commitment of the demographers to quality and richness of information.  Perhaps for our descendants it will simply be a case of accessing more record sets, each one focusing on a narrower aspect of our lives.  Electoral records, for example, will show all those of voting age living at an address, while GP registers will include children.  Nevertheless, I write this with some trepidation, having checked the online electoral registration record for myself at my current address and noted that a well-known actor of ‘Carry-On’ film fame (now deceased) is listed as having lived here with me!  Although the number of his house was the same as ours, his property was located in a little courtyard leading off the same road but with a different name.  Doesn’t bode well does it!

In fact we may soon find ourselves seeking alternatives to the census.  After the release of the 1921 census (anticipated January 2022), it will be thirty years before the next one.  The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire during World War 2, and the 1941 census was never taken.  Perhaps, in response to our needs, the commercial websites will start to index more of these alternative types of records for our use, and the changes a hundred years hence will be relatively seemless.

Before leaving the topic of the census, although admittedly going off at a complete tangent….
I recently came across an interesting article about a Harvard student who, working with his professor, has cracked the code used by the Incas in their ‘khipu’ textiles: knotted cords used for record keeping.  Gradually, it became clear that these were these were the Inca equivalent of census records. Bearing in mind that the Inca Empire reached its height of power in the 15th- and 16th-centuries, they were centuries ahead of us in this regard.  You can read this fascinating article [here].