The 1921 census has undoubtedly caused great excitement in the genealogical community. Over a hundred years after the forms were completed, we have the opportunity of finding out more about our family members, some of whom we may have personally known and loved. There is the prospect of finding parents, grandparents, maybe even great grandparents in the records. If they filled in the form, you may even recognise their unique handwriting and signature. You can also find out where they were living and see if the family home is still standing today. Some family historians will be hoping that the 1921 census will solve their long-standing family mysteries; at last, its long-buried secrets will be given up. Yet how was the census viewed a hundred years ago, what was the experience of the enumerators and how did people react to the questions that they were asked? To find the answers, there is no better source than newspaper records. They provide a contemporary perspective on the taking of the census during that summer of 1921.
The Background to the Census
In 1921, the political situation was volatile, and civil unrest was in the air. Originally, the census was due to be taken on April 24th, but it had to be postponed until June 20th because of widespread industrial unrest and in particular, a coal strike. Even by June, the industrial unrest had not yet been resolved and many people believed that the situation was getting even worse. It was a time of struggle for many families. The country had only recently emerged blinking from its ordeal of four long years of conflict. Many young men had been killed and others were scarred permanently by their traumatic experiences. This tragedy was swiftly followed by the deaths of nearly a quarter of a million people, particularly young adults, who died in the Spanish Flu pandemic.
Unemployment was also high, particularly amongst ex-serviceman, many of whom had become disabled or were suffering from “shell shock” and finding it difficult to integrate back into civilian life. It was felt by many that the census was being taken at the country’s industrial nadir, when millions of men and women were out of work. With a housing shortage, many people also lived in overcrowded and unsanitary homes. There was therefore concern in some quarters that the information given in the census would be out of date and unduly depressing by the time the census statistics were published some two years later.
Nevertheless, there was genuine interest in the current size of the population. Had it really grown since 1911? As a result of the War and the flu epidemic, births had fallen and deaths had risen. For the first time in the history of the General Registration Office (G.R.O.), more deaths than births had been registered in 1918 (though a record 1.1 million babies were born in 1920, helping to redress the balance at little). As a result the number and ages of all living children and step-children under 16 years of age was to be recorded. There was also a question regarding whether their parents were dead or living. The impetus for this question was the number of children who had been left fatherless. It was to be recorded whether they were “Both Alive”, “Both Dead” or “Father Dead”, “Mother Dead”.
Some local newspapers, such as The Worthing Herald, decided to hold competitions where readers could guess the numbers enumerated in their district. Readers had to send in a coupon with their best estimate. The Worthing Herald offered the prize of a grand piano, worth 120 guineas, to the winner who had given the most accurate estimate.
Many were none too pleased that the census was being taken in June, rather than April. It was an important issue for people in towns up and down the country. A census in the summer meant that more people would be away from home on holiday, so a summer census was believed to be detrimental to the interests of many towns that were not holiday destinations. The statistics gathered would not reflect the “normal” population. However, this could be to the advantage of seaside resorts, such as Blackpool, Scarborough or Torquay, which usually experienced a swell in their population. Similarly, in university towns, such as Oxford, or those with numerous educational establishments such as Cheltenham, students and teachers would add to the town’s numbers in June, as it was term time, whilst they would be absent in April.
The debate on the benefits or drawbacks of changing the date from April to June filled the columns of many newspapers. In general, it was better for a town to have a larger population enumerated because this influenced the allocation of resources and could potentially effect their status. There was particular interest in this topic in Cheltenham, as can be seen in the pages of The Gloucester Journal. Cheltenham was a town with a population of just under 50,000 at the time of the 1911 census. During term time its population was boosted by students and teachers, though this was tempered by other residents being away on holiday in June. If the population was found to be above 50,000 in the census, the town would become a county borough, giving it freedom from county control.
One consequence of the postponement of the census was the use of advertising to recoup the extra expenditure the delay had caused the public purse. A slip of paper explaining the change of date had to be included with each schedule, as the schedules had already been printed with the original date. Paid advertisements could be placed on the back of the slips. A figure of £900 to £1000 for an advert was quoted as the charge per million slips. This caused outrage from people who believed that it was improper for a government to make money in this way. One reader of The Gloucestershire Echo had this to say about it in their strongly-worded letter:
Is it dignified, decorous, or even decent to make Government applications into Advertising Agencies? I think not, and I am sure many will share my feeling of surprise at finding an advertisement of a forthcoming work by Mr. Bottomley enclosed with the census paper delivered today. Whatever Mr Bottomley’s more or less immortal work may gain, I cannot but think it most degrading to England that such a thing is possible.Gloucestershire Echo Thursday 16 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
An Educational Service
Newspapers played an important role in educating people on the information that they were required to submit and why it was being sought. The Western Morning News, that covered much of the West Country, gave readers a heads-up before the census schedules were distributed:
Posters showing the census schedule had already been put up ahead of time in Post Offices to prepare people. Children had also received instruction in schools about the census in order to assist their parents and grandparents, some of whom would have been illiterate or at least have had more limited education.
In 1921, it was recognised that the country had changed a great deal as a result of the War, particularly when it came to the world of work. In 1911, domestic service had been the biggest occupation, followed by coal mining and then agriculture. Since then, domestic service had suffered a slump, thousands of miners were out of work and it was thought that the agricultural population was no larger than in 1911, despite the rally “back to the land”. It was predicted that mechanical transport would now show a great growth.
Detailed information was to be collected on the type of employment, with the industry added too for classification purposes. Vague and indefinite terms were to be avoided: the “precise character of occupation should be stated”. The name of the employer was another safeguard to ensure that it was clear what industry a person was employed in. If the work was not carried out regularly at one place “no fixed place” was to be recorded. However, there was criticism that there would be no record of the service of millions who had served their country in a military, naval or auxiliary capacity during the War.
The question on a person’s employment, apart from revealing a person’s individual prosperity, was designed to give a picture of national prosperity. Readers of The Gloucestershire Chronicle were reminded that the purpose of taking the census was not just to find out the number of people in the country:
“but also to accurately compile the assets of the country by obtaining the commercial worth of the country through the particulars as to occupation”.Gloucestershire Chronicle Saturday 18 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
The Organisation of the Census
The census was to be organised by local Registrars with the Superintendent Registrars acting as honorary advisory officers. Local people were then appointed as enumerators to visit and drop off schedules to each household within their enumeration district. In England and Wales an army of over 38,000 enumerators were recruited to drop off 8.5 million forms to every household in the week beforehand. They then had to go back and collect them all the following Monday (June 20th). In a densely populated urban area, an enumerator might be responsible for 300 households who were residents of a few streets, but in rural areas, an enumerator might cover an area of five miles, either on foot or bicycle, if the houses were thinly spread out. It was a huge task. People spending the weekend on a houseboat on the river, those in caravans either on holiday or perhaps because they were gypsies, all had to be recorded. Families in canal boats were to have shipping schedules and the captains of ships in port were expected to fill in the schedule, no matter how large. Vagrants were a particular problem, as homelessness had increased since demobilisation at the end of the War. The police were roped in to ensure that they were counted as reported in The Surrey Mirror:
Members of the Reigate Borough Police Force diligently searched all barns, outbuildings, etc., so that no individual would not be “counted”. Four men were found “sleeping rough”, and their particulars were entered on census forms, as was also one man who was a prisoner in the police station cells.Surrey Mirror – Friday 24th June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Enumerators had to find out how many rooms were in the house and deliver additional schedules if there were separate lodgings within. A pressing concern in 1921 was the housing stock and the lack of suitable homes for a growing population. This meant that the number of living rooms in the house would supply information on the vexed housing problem. Sometimes, not enough forms were delivered to separate occupiers in overcrowded homes, which caused protests:
… a dogged and determined stand was taken against being included on anyone else’s schedule.Portsmouth Evening News – Tuesday 21 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Inevitably, there was some muddle over who exactly should be included on a householders return. Newspapers helped to provide some clarification:
Only those people who are alive at midnight on June 19 and pass the night in the dwelling, or arrive at the house on the morning of June 20, not having been enumerated elsewhere, are to be included in the schedule. Therefore a person spending a holiday on the Continent at the time will not be included in the figures when they are published.Gloucestershire Chronicle Saturday 18 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
There was particular confusion over the inclusion of servants. “Day Girls” were sometimes left off their parent’s schedule in the belief that they were on the schedule of their employer or in some instances, live in servants were recorded twice by their employers and their parents. If they were working in private personal service, they were to recorded as “private” as opposed to those working in hotels, restaurants and boarding houses who were to give the name and business of their employer. Similarly, service men sleeping on shore were warned not to think that they would be included in the schedules of their ships. Anyone who died before midnight should not be included but babies born after that time should be added.
Clearly, questions had arisen about what to do in particular circumstances and The Bournemouth Guardian tried to give some guidance:
If a man and wife were living apart, and the woman was residing with her father, she would go on her father’s schedule as his daughter, and would be described also as a married woman. Where the front of a house was used as a shop, and the people living there for the purpose of carrying on a business, the room would be described as a shop. If there was a case of infectious illness in a house at census time, the enumerators were advised to fill up the particulars outside the house, at the dictation of a responsible member of the family. When two or more lodgers share a room and did not board with the family they must be treated as a separate family.Bournemouth Guardian Saturday 18 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
With so many enumerators needed, it was hoped that many unemployed ex-serviceman would take on the role. However, judging by comments in the Press, many people felt that numerous deserving candidates had been overlooked in favour of local worthies. This caused some outrage, summed up in this letter from “A Lover of Justice” to the Editor of The Buckinghamshire Advertiser and Free Press:
The Enumerators’ Reception
The Western Press commented that some regarded the enumerator as a “sinister emissary from a tyrannical Government”. It was hoped that “latent hostility towards the perfectly innocent enumerator may be less violently expressed than hitherto has been the case”. It is clear that memories of the militant suffragettes protesting at the time of the 1911 census were fresh. One former suffragette was reported by The Hampshire Telegraph to have said: “Times have changed and we have got all that we fought for”. Readers were encouraged to face the task “with cheerfulness and fortitude” and welcome the enumerator on the Monday morning with “wreathed smiles”. They should have the schedule ready and waiting for collection. The Western Chronicle warned the residents of Yeovil “not to keep the enumerator waiting when he knocks, as the schedules have to be collected in one day.” If a person was going to be out, they were supposed to make arrangements to leave their form with a neighbour.
The Hampshire Independent highlighted the problems faced by the enumerators in collecting the forms and even getting them filled in in the first place:
Many people did not regard it as a duty to keep somebody in the house until the enumerators came, and there were still a few suspicious people who, holding that the facts contained in the paper would somehow be used in evidence against them, declined at first to have anything to do with the matter.Hampshire Independent – Friday 24 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
To combat non-compliance, fines could be issued:
In case any of our readers may be a little recalcitrant as to filling in the necessary particulars, we would remind them that there is a penalty of £10 for refusing to do so.Gloucestershire Chronicle Saturday 18 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Anyone who had failed to receive a form was urged to contact the Registrar-General immediately and if the head of the household was unable to fill in the schedule for any reason, the enumerator was empowered to do so at the dictation of the head. An enumerator also had the power to correct a completed schedule that was obviously incomplete, inconsistent, inaccurate or illegible.
According to the law, the head of the household was deemed to be the person paying the rental of the house, but people were encouraged to use their common sense. Feminists, of course, may have objected to not been able to be recorded as the head of the household if their husbands were present. However, The Western Times reported that housewives were consoled by the fact that in this census, they were not recorded as of “no occupation”. Instead they were to describe their occupation as “home duties”.
Reactions to Filling in the Census Forms
Then, as now, it was acknowledged in the newspapers that few people enjoyed filling in official forms. However, it was commented that because of the War, people had got more used to more bureaucracy. The Western Daily Press summed up the sentiments of readers who had filled in their forms the previous evening:
It has been a notable, not to say trying, weekend. The census paper is said to have baffled the senses of many people, and on the top of that the coal crisis has become more acute than ever. Some lucky folk are said to be taking holiday on the Continent, where the census official is not troubling and industrial agitators are at rest. The filling up of the complicated form for the enumeration of the people was not always accomplished easily. In the private house the task presented no great difficulty, but in large establishments containing visitors it was a very delicate affair. People do not like to let strangers know where and when they were born, and it is highly probable that the returns will not be so accurate as they might have been. In some instances, the obtaining of the information evoked much good-humoured chaff, and it required some effort to keep to facts…It is not everybody that sees any useful purpose in the taking of the census, and one in ten years is quite often enough for most people.Western Daily Press – Monday 20 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Another account in The Portsmouth Evening News gives some idea of the reaction to the census from local residents of the city:
In the homes there appears to have been a good deal of mental exercise and head-scratching. Husbands consulted each other over backyard walls, spinsters and young widows hesitated about giving their precise age; board-lodgers sulked because they were not privileged to have a Census paper to themselves. “Mr X.,” who had impressed his landlady with the importance of his position at a very big place of business, hesitated to disclose the fact that he was sort of glorified store-porter; Mrs “Y.,” who had bestowed many coy glances upon the landlady’s nephew when he came to dine on Sundays, felt qualms of conscience in giving her age as “22” and “Mrs Z.,” who was spending her husband’s prize money in a very lavish holiday style at a superior boarding-house, wondered to what extent the proprietress had a knowledge of London when she gave the place of her birth as Bermondsey.Portsmouth Evening News – Tuesday 21 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Some of our ancestors enjoyed a little joke at the enumerator’s expense and added their own extra notes, such as recording their feline companion. A journalist of The Hampshire Independent commented on this tendency:
There are some who can never refrain from the exercise of a rudimentary humour when they come across an official form of any sort. Perhaps they do it because they know it upsets the bureaucratic mind. A joke on a form is a sort of sacrilege to him, and if he can, he generally makes the perpetrator suffer for it.Hampshire Independent – Friday 24th June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Despite the difficulties of the job, many enumerators took it all with good humour, as reported in The Bournemouth Guardian:
Enumerators tell some funny yarns “What do you want to know for?” was one of the favourite questions. A woman asked an official to tell her whether she was married or not, and a man who had lost his wife years before wrote himself down as single. A deaf old lady greeted him with, “I am glad to see you: I nursed you as a kid.” In one street the “census man” was heralded by a swarm of urchins, who kicked at the doors far in advance of his footsteps, to give due warning of his approach.
The Bournemouth Guardian Saturday 18 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Many people did object to filling in the census schedule on privacy grounds. The Western Daily Press held out forthrightly on this topic:
There is nothing that rumples the sensitiveness of the exclusive Englishman more than official inquisitiveness into the management of the affairs of his house which is “his castle”.The Western Daily Press Saturday 18 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Some newspapers though, did try to allay people’s fears:
One need have no fear of disclosing confidential particulars to the enumerators, for each has been sworn to secrecy, any violation of which will be visited by heavy punishment.Gloucestershire Chronicle Saturday 18th June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
Judging by the frequency of the comments in newspapers, the question on age provoked more heart-searching than any other on the form, especially for ladies. Due to the War, there was now a large disparity between the number of men and women in the population. In fact, the 1921 census revealed that there were 19.8 million women and girls but only 18.1 million men and boys. Eligible men were therefore in short supply, particularly for middle-class unmarried ladies and widows, as a disproportionately high number of officers had been killed in the War. As a result, a lady’s age was a sensitive subject. Respondents were told to give their age last birthday and the number of months that had since elapsed – “an honest question that requires an honest answer”. If the birthday was not known, only the number of years should be recorded. Newspapers reassured readers that the information was only to be used for statistical purposes but it is clear that many women in particular were uncomfortable in revealing their age, especially to local enumerators.
The biggest problem regarding privacy was when people were recorded in institutions or places such as hotels:
Realising that some persons dislike revealing information such as “age” and “condition as to marriage” the Registrar General has arranged that the schedule may, if desired, be handed to the enumerator undercover. In the case of hotels and boarding houses, it is suggested that the best way of ensuring that one boarder shall not be able to read all relating to other boarders, a sheet of paper should be used by the person in charge to cover each line as it is filled up.Western Times Saturday 11 June 1921 – https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/
My examination of local newspapers has revealed what an important role they played in educating people about the census. They explained to readers how the census was being organised, what information they were expected to provide and why, and gave instructions on the practicalities of making sure that their schedule was filled in and collected promptly. It is evident that the enumerators’ task of ensuring that everybody was counted was immense and there were some real practical problems. Newspapers also provide an insight into how ordinary people viewed the census in 1921 and their dislike of form-filing and bureaucracy. Many people were genuinely concerned about disclosing private information and were reluctant to answer the questions truthfully. We can be thankful that nevertheless, so many did.
@ Judith Batchelor 2022
15 thoughts on “The 1921 Census in the News”
An excellent summary and report of the 1921 census. It must have taken a lot of research. Many thanks.
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Your post is incredibly detailed and insightful. Who knew there was advertising sold to help defray the extra expense? And that housewives weren’t shown without occupations any longer. Thanks for this wonderful background on the 1921 census.
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This quote: “…there were still a few suspicious people who, holding that the facts contained in the paper would somehow be used in evidence against them, declined at first to have anything to do with the matter,” reminds me that some things never change. I remember talking with an acquaintance who was an enumerator for the 2010 US census. She said that some enumerators on her team had guns pulled on them by local residents who were adamant that they would NOT take part in what they felt was an “illegal intrusion of privacy.” The level of distrust was really that high, and I suspect it remained that way in 2020 as well.
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Yes, when I was researching the article, I thought that attitudes towards officialdom and perceived State intrusion have not changed much in the last 100 years.
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Thanks for sharing such an in-depth post about the 1921 census, so much information to digest and you have woven the newspapers into the historical context beautifully. As ever, your blogs are the benchmark that the rest of us should aspire to.
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Many thanks for your feedback.
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Thank you for your hard work researching this. It gives a wonderful insight to the attitudes and behaviour of people at the time of the census.
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With all the excitement of the 1921 census being released, I had forgotten to think of the impact at the time of its recording and the context of its taking – I loved the imagery of neighbours discussing the forms over the garden wall and ‘urchins’ running on ahead to kick the doors of neighbours to let them know the Enumerator was on their way! Easy to digest and informative piece as ever, Thank you.
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Yes, there were some gems!
Thank you for such an interesting piece of work, Judith. It’s very interesting to read about people’s distrust of the government even back then. Things really haven’t changed too much. I’m enjoying discovering where my ancestors worked in 1921.
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Thanks Gill! Like you, I thought how little things have changed.
A fascinating angle on the census – I love the newspapers that had competitions for people to guess the number enumerated in their area.
It’s funny how some things never change – these days our newspapers still have letters and articles about people who are suspicious of the government and its intentions. During last year’s census in Canada, some didn’t want to fill it out for the same reasons expressed 100 years ago.
I also hadn’t thought of the ages for women. Out of curiosity, I checked my nana’s cousins, most of whom remained unmarried, and the ones who were in the family home that day did report their ages accurately. It was interesting, though. Their parents were away on vacation at Southend on Sea (I found them there), so it was four of the young women and one of their brothers – he was a decade younger than the oldest sister, yet it was HE who filled out and signed the form! I have to admit, I gritted my teeth at that!
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It is a reminder that although the world changes, people are just the same!
In 1921, women had only just got the vote and were not on equal franchise terms until 1928. I would have been unusual for a woman to be described as the head of a household if a man was present. My grandmother was only with her small child as her husband, my grandfather, was away at sea in the Navy. She filled in the schedule and signed it but interestingly, put my grandfather’s name down as head of the household on the cover.