The 1901 census took place in the year that Queen Victoria died and the Boer War was claiming thousands of lives. However, a new modern era was dawning with the arrival of the motor car, the first purpose-built cinema and the establishment of the Fingerprint Investigation Bureau.

Enumerators gathered information on UK residents for the night of 31 March. The question on employment status from 1891 was altered slightly so that instead of asking whether someone was ‘Employer, Employee or Neither’, the 1901 census asked people to state whether they were ‘Employer, Worker or Own Account’. There was also a new question on home-working to help calculate the contribution women made to the formal and the informal economy.

The other information that had been collected in earlier censuses remained unchanged.
Welsh language schedules were provided for Welsh speakers in Monmouthshire and Wales, and a special circular was drawn up in Yiddish and German for the recently-arrived Jewish population in London and Manchester, explaining how to fill in schedules.

Britain Abroad
Britain Abroad: 

British soldiers guard Boer prisoners in 1900. © Getty Images.

The Boer War continued to dominate the international scene in 1901. The South African conflict was nearing its end but continued to be divisive, with imperialists challenged by opponents of the war in principle, and by critics of the methods of the British commanders.

The war had gone badly for Britain in the first months, with the resourceful Boers scoring notable victories. By 1901, British forces, under the command of General Kitchener, had divided up the country and rounded up Boer guerrillas in a terrifying scorched-earth policy. Everything was destroyed and Boer women and children were taken into British-run concentration camps where more than 20,000 died. At the beginning of the year, English reformer Emily Hobhouse was in South Africa as a delegate of the Distress Fund for South African Women to investigate conditions in the camps.

Liberal leader Henry Campbell-Bannerman, in opposition to the Conservative government, was deeply affected by reports of conditions in the camps. In a speech at the National Reform Union on 14 June 1901, he said: “What was this policy of unconditional surrender? It was that, now we had got the men we were fighting against down, we should punish them as severely as possible, devastate their country, burn their homes, and destroy the machinery by which food was produced. When was a war not a war? When it was carried on by methods of barbarism in South Africa.” The month after, camp management was taken out of the hands of the military commanders, and by the following year the Boer death rate had declined considerably.

Meanwhile, the Boxer rebellion of fanatical anti-western Chinese ended in September 1901 after an unusual display of national solidarity in an international rescue effort for besieged foreigners. China was invaded by forces from Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan and the US.

The Boxers were a secret society, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, who believed their martial art rendered them impervious to bullets. They had attacked both foreigners and Chinese Christian converts and had destroyed churches, railways and mines as evidence of alien influence in China. They were covertly backed by the Chinese imperial government that, as a settlement, agreed to pay reparations and promised reforms.

The world of international politics was still swayed by the hand of the assassin. The Russian minister of propaganda was assassinated in February in reprisal for his repression of students. An assassin tried to kill Wilhelm II of Germany in Bremen in March, but he survived. United States President William McKinley was not so fortunate. He was killed by two shots from an anarchist’s gun as he greeted well-wishers at a fair in New York State in September.

The Australian parliament opened in Melbourne in May, representing a federation of the six colonies to make a new nation. The Commonwealth of Australia aimed to create a model democracy: in 1902, Australia became the second nation in the world, after New Zealand, to give women the vote.

Jad Adams

Crime & Punishment
Crime & Punishment: 

In Bengal in the 1890s, Sir Edward Henry, a civil servant, had seen fingerprints used on government documents to identify illiterate contractors. He began to develop a system to classify fingerprints, and in 1899 he appeared before a Home Office committee to explain how this could be used to identify criminals.

In 1900, his Classification and Uses of Fingerprints was published, and in 1901 he was appointed to the CID. Within months, he had established the Fingerprint Investigation Bureau, and by 1902 the first conviction on fingerprint evidence was secured. At the Old Bailey, Harry Jackson was found guilty of stealing billiard balls from a house which, unfortunately for him, had freshly painted windowsills. These prints were the first ever entered in courtroom evidence (see ‘My Family Hero’ on page 98 for more about this case).

Medical forensics was not lagging behind, although here British experts relied on Continental advances. In 1901, in Germany, tests were first devised to differentiate between human and animal blood, and in the same year, also in Germany, further tests were being developed that would ultimately recognise different blood groups.

This period was perhaps safer than any time before. The Criminal Registrar noted that the previous decade had “witnessed a great change in manners: the substitution of words…for blows…a decline in the spirit of lawlessness”. The historian VAC Gatrell has suggested that the falling crime rate reflected an era when policing was able to obtain “a peculiar and transient advantage…over ancient forms of popular lawlessness”.

Judith Flanders


On 1 January 1901, the first day of the new century, Macmillan advertised Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. The author was at the height of his powers – and would never again write anything of this quality.

In the following year his great friend Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead in The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sick to death of his creation, Doyle had “murdered” him in 1893. In The Hound Watson presents his eerie tale as a story that took place before Holmes’ “death”, but later, in 1903, Conan Doyle caved in to public demand and brought Holmes back for good.

Another animal which was to sell and sell over the new century was a little rabbit called Peter. Frustrated by repeated rejections from publishers, Beatrix Potter printed 250 copies of a small volume at her own expense. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was soon reprinted – but still privately, until in 1902 a publisher conceded that there might be commercial possibilities in talking rabbits.

In 1889 the industrialist Sir Henry Tate had given his collection of paintings to the nation, and the Tate Gallery, built on the site of a Victorian prison, opened in 1897. The Tate’s pictures included Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shallott, which remains one of the most-loved pictures in the gallery today.

In Scotland, the future was being built in the form of the Glasgow School of Art. Charles Rennie Mackintosh had won a competition to design the building, and in 1902 he gained further accolades when the Mackintosh Room at the Turin International Exhibition was hailed as a triumph.

Arthur Wing Pinero and George Bernard Shaw were also looking forward, writing plays questioning society and its conventions.

Musically, there was a lull: in 1901, Percy Grainger arrived in Britain, but it would be some years before his arrangements of folk-song reinvigorated the genre; Delius composed A Village Romeo and Juliet, but it only premiered in 1907 in Berlin. And Richard D’Oyly Carte, the impresario who brought Gilbert and Sullivan together, died, putting a full stop to the world of the 19th-century comic operetta.

Judith Flanders

Domestic / Political
Domestic / Political: 

Crowds line the streets to see Queen Victoria's funeral procession. © Getty Images.

The event that overshadowed all others in 1901 was the death of Queen Victoria on 22 January. The ruler of the largest empire the world had ever seen had spent 63 years on the throne.

It was impossible to escape the atmosphere of mourning. "Drawn blinds, shaded shops and the sombre trappings of woe may be observed everywhere", according to a press report. Her death should have been anticpated but it was so unthinkable that the Government and court were utterly unprepared. The Victorian age had been one of increasing wealth but there were still plenty of people living at the other end of the social scale: 35 per cent of East Enders lived below the official poverty line. The American writer Jack London described "a new and different people, short of stature, an odd wretched and beer-sodden appearance" in 1902.

Also in this year, the Taff Vale judgement was finally passed down from the House of Lords. The Taff Vale Railway Company had sued for their losses when the union was on strike. The result was that the union had to pay £32,000 in costs and damages, but the effect was to cripple the trade union movement.

The real winner in all this was the Labour Representation Committee - soon to be the Labour Party - which formed in 1900 to combine trade unions and socialist societies in a political party. Within a year, membership more than doubled to 861,000, and it began to win by-elections.

The Royal Navy's first submarine was launched at Barrow, and this year the admiralty decided to build three huge battleships, the biggest in the world.

The first practical electric vacuum cleaner was patented by Birmingham engineer Hubert Booth. 'Puffing Billy' was a horse-drawn, petrol-driven van that would be parked outside the house to be cleaned and hoses run inside to suck out dirt.

Guglielmo Mrconi conducted the first successful wireless experiment in Cornwall, sending messages to the Newfoundland coast 2,000 miles away.

The ills family of Bristol created the Imperial Tobacco Company from a merger between 13 British tobacco companies to produce pipe tobacco and the increasingly popular cigarretes.

It had been a long wait for the Prince of Wales who ascended to the thrown at the age of 59 as Edward VII. His 48-inch waistline gave him the nickname Tum-Tum; is fondness for female companionship gave him another: Edward the Caresser. Queen Victoria had hated smoking; the new king gathered his friends at Buckingham Palace and entered with a cigar in his hands and the words: "Gentlemen, you may smoke."


The problems of the Anglo-Boer conflict (1899-1902) suggested that Britain still lagged behind Germany in nurturing a people fit for war; people looked to schools to develop a stronger sense of citizenship.

Sir Arthur Acland, who had helped set up London’s Technical Education Board (TEB), was put in charge of education by Gladstone in 1892 and promptly established government grants for evening classes in citizenship. The key to success clearly lay in technical secondary education, as called for by the 1895 Bryce Commission, which also recommended a single government body to run education and a central register of teachers. The Board of Education was accordingly set up in 1899, but the development of secondary education led to a bitter conflict in the capital between the TEB, chaired by the Fabian Sidney Webb, and the London School Board, which was also trying to expand its remit into the secondary field.

In a landmark ruling in December 1900, the High Court ruled that school boards had no right to spend ratepayers’ money on secondary education. Both the Fabians and the Churches called for government to move properly into secondary education, although they would have to wait until 1944 for this to happen.

Scotland was developing English-style school boards, though as Scottish board schools taught religion, there was less need for a religious voluntary sector. More Scots – men and women – went to university per head of population than anywhere else in the kingdom, though the whole university sector was expanding and only Oxford and Cambridge still held out against giving women degrees. There was much debate about the purpose of university education: although science was developing rapidly, the classics and humanities still dominated the university curriculum.

Sean Lang


Women polishing gold chains at a factory in Birmingham, c. 1909. © Getty Images

The 1901 census identified prodigious population growth in two distinct types of region.

The first were the Derbyshire, North-east and South Wales coal fields. In Wales, the mines workforce had doubled in two decades to 148,000. Nationally 780,000 now worked in the pits. The second chief growth point was London’s suburbs. Places like Tottenham had been rural villages in living memory, while East Ham had tripled in size to nearly 100,000 people in ten years.

Docks and gasworks were major employers, but many of East Ham’s workers commuted into London. Each day 4,250 suburban trains steamed into the capital and every year 600 million passengers used the termini and underground network. Railways employed 320,000 people nationally (just 2,000 were women). Yet road transport employed substantially more than half a million. That meant working with horses, for lorries and motor-buses were still a few years off. However, by 1901 in backstreet Midlands workshops, pioneers like Henry Daimler and the Great Horseless Carriage Company were turning out a trickle of vehicles. In 1904, there were 8,456 cars on the roads.

Outside London, the majority walked to work. Most were men. Even among the over-75s, 40 per cent of men still worked. There were just a handful of occupations where women dominated: laundry work was almost totally female. Around three-quarters of workers in the hosiery, straw hat and glove-making industries were women, as were schoolteachers.

At 100,000, the number of female secretaries had more than doubled since the previous census, though male clerks substantially outnumbered them six to one. The cotton industry was the bastion of female employment: 77 per cent of unmarried women worked in Blackburn, and 40 per cent who were married. Redditch in Worcestershire had the highest proportion of married women in paid employment – needle and pin making occupied 43 per cent of married and widowed women.

The census reveals surprising female occupation elsewhere in the West Midlands. Women constituted up to a half of the workforce in chain making. Robert Sherard, visiting Cradley Heath in 1898 was astonished to find “sheds with five or six women, each working at her anvil… frightened infants hanging to their mothers’ breasts, as they ply the hammer”. Chain making was one of the most poorly paid jobs in Britain, at no more than six shillings for a 54-hour week. “I worked up till five”, a Cradley Heath mother told Sherard, the day “our little Johnny was born at a quarter past seven”.

Malcolm Chase


Women wore huge hats and trimmed with feathers and flowers, or straw boaters. © Getty Images

Most clothes were still made at home or by dressmakers, but ready-to-wear garments were increasingly available. Department stores expanded, as did shops with multiple branches, such as Hepworth’s for menswear.

Women’s silhouettes emphasised height and sinuous curves. Hats were huge, trimmed with feathers and flowers, bodices frothed with lace and chiffon over the bosom, and mermaid-cut skirts swept to the ground. Ladies often relied on parasols to balance their strange curved stance.

Strict codes dictated styles, although times were changing. For men, lounge suits were increasingly popular, but tailed morning coats still constituted “proper” daywear.

Girls continued to wear layers of petticoats under dresses pulled in by belts and little boys wore suits with thick stockings and sturdy shoes.

Rebecca Arnold


By 1901, attempts to alleviate the worst of urban slums were beginning to work.

The census reported that an average of 8.2 per cent of the population of England and Wales lived in overcrowded conditions (more than two to a room; four, if there were children), three per cent fewer than 1891. Figures could range as high as 35 per cent for some industrial areas.

Many workers lived in “back-to-backs”, two-roomed houses in terraced rows that backed onto the houses in the street behind. Outdoor lavatories were located in the small yards behind, often where you would also find the household’s single tap. This drove epidemic disease and death. In 1895, for example, the Six Towns in the Potteries had the fourth worst infant mortality rate in England. Continued improvements in housing and sanitation did however have an effect: 20 years later the region no longer figured in the top 25.

The Housing of the Working Classes Acts of 1890 and 1900 gave local authorities the right to build council housing for their workers. In addition, cheaper, more frequent public transport put the countryside within reach, making the idea of “suburbia” achievable for the masses, not just the middle classes. In September 1901, the Garden City Association met in Birmingham to press for the creation of “slumless, smokeless cities”. As a result, the first “garden city”, at Letchworth, was created by 1903.

Judith Flanders


Dan Leno, the hugely successful comic actor, appeared in multiple films and even had his own boy's comic. © Getty Images.

By 1901, the world was beginning to look recognisably modern in media innovations.

On the first day of the new century, Alfred Harmsworth created the world’s first tabloid newspaper, the World. Harmsworth had started publishing the Daily Mail in 1896, boosting its circulation to a staggering 989,255 in 1900, with slogans like “the busy man’s daily journal” and “the penny newspaper for one halfpenny”. Now the masthead of the World welcomed the century of hurry and rush: “The Busy Man’s Paper. All the News in Sixty Seconds.”

Cinema was developing rapidly, too. Until now, it had been just one item on a variety bill. The Empire Music Hall, in London’s Leicester Square, had for several years been slotting four short films into an evening’s entertainment – the arrival of the Paris Express, a practical joke played on a governess, the collapse of a wall and boating in the Mediterranean – between jugglers, singers, dancers and a performance of Faust. But the new medium was taking over: in August, the first dedicated cinema opened, in Islington, north London.

The documentary film was hugely popular: for the first time ever, people could see events almost as soon as they took place, hundreds of miles away. Dozens of companies rushed to capitalise on this market. Cecil Hepworth’s production company produced three films on the Paris Exposition of 1900, and on the death of Queen Victoria in January 1901, it filmed her funeral. In February, the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company provided footage of Edward VII and Queen Alexandra being driven to the opening of Parliament, as well as sporting events like the Derby and the Henley Regatta.

While film was taken out of variety halls, variety was finding a new outlet in film. Dan Leno, the great comedian, now at his zenith, was everywhere. He appeared annually as the Dame at Drury Lane’s Christmas pantomime, and he even became the ‘hero’ of a boy’s serial, Dan Leno’s Comic Journal, possibly the first real person to be so fictionalised. Now he also appeared in films, a few times as an actor, but mostly as himself, the befuddled Everyman trying to get to grips with the modern world in Dan Leno’s Attempt to Master the Cycle, or attempting to open a champagne bottle in An Obstinate Cork. In 1902, he would neatly merge the new worlds of tabloid journalism and film in his appearance in Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell Edit the ‘Sun’.

Judith Flanders


Historians have much debated the chronology and extent of “secularisation”. There is little doubt that by 1901 church attendance rates were falling, and many contemporaries were deeply fearful about this.

Declining attendances and membership was clearly affecting many nonconformist churches as well as the Church of England. However, this did not reduce religious controversy and in some respects accentuated it, as the denominations rivalled each other to gain members.

Education was a major focus for tensions between the Anglican church and nonconformists, and 1902 marked one of the highest and most complicated points in such conflict. Locally elected school boards, as set up by the 1870 Education Act, were abolished by Balfour’s Education Act of 1902, and their powers were transferred to county councils and county boroughs. Rate aid was provided for voluntary Anglican schools. One intention of this Act was to safeguard the funding and future of church schools.

In a majority of parishes the only school was a church one. Amid a flurry of variously motivated opposition, many nonconformists saw themselves as contributing to Anglicanism via their rates. In some parts of the country, such as Norfolk and Wales, there were concerted efforts to withhold rates in opposition to the Act, leading to imprisonments, seizure of goods and much ill-feeling.

The 1902 Act, and its lack of options for non-Anglicans, contributed to the Liberal victory in 1906. Significantly, however, the Liberals failed to repeal it, a failure that some historians have seen as instrumental in their decline.

Keith Snell


A Daimler 6 horsepower Wagonette, (c. 1896), part of a new generation of motor cars which were gradually replacing horses. © Getty Images.

In September 1901, the Times carried an announcement for a “service of motor cars [eight-seater wagonettes] to carry passengers at omnibus fares between Piccadilly Circus and Putney”.

Until then, roads in cities were clogged with the traffic (and excrement) of nearly two million horses that continued to work commercially – still carrying more goods than the railways. Before the Putney wagonette, all urban passenger traffic was horse-drawn, but pressure on streets and on horses was intense (the latter due to the Boer War) and the wagonette was the beginning of a solution. Within ten years, over 3,000 motor-buses competed with just 150 remaining horse-buses, and nearly 8,000 motor-taxis outnumbered horse-cabs 4:1.

Railways were in a golden age. Suburban commuters around the country began to benefit from electrification. Cross- country services meant holidaymakers could now travel from Newcastle to Bournemouth, bypassing the hub of London. Regular luxury services, such as the Cornish Riviera Express added to the possibilities. On the Great Western Railway, the City of Truro achieved a European record for a steam locomotive in 1904 with a speed of over 100 mph.

The decade started and ended somberly for the railway. On 2 February 1901 it carried the body of Queen Victoria from the Isle of Wight to Windsor. In 1910, King Edward VII’s body was brought from Paddington to Windsor. Evidence suggests the horse had not been quite superseded. A notice issued by a railway firm at the time of Edward’s death reveals: “The company have supplied staff with mourning armlets and the drivers of road vans with black crape [sic] for their whips.”

Jill Murdoch

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