When was the 1921 census taken?
The 1921 census was taken on 19 June 1921, but it got off to a bumpy start. It was originally due to be taken on 24 April, but industrial upheaval intervened. The Miners’ Federation planned to strike in protest at a reduction in pay, and hoped to be joined by their allies among railwaymen and transport workers in the so-called Triple Alliance of unions. The strike, due to start on 15 April, would have crippled transport links and severely distorted the image of the nation presented in the returns on census day. In the event, there was no general strike, but by then the date of the census had been moved.
View records from the 1921 census for England and Wales here
The cost of printing millions of amendment slips was defrayed by selling advertising on the back of the slips. Unfortunately, the advertiser was the Sunday Illustrated, owned by the MP Horatio Bottomley – who was soon afterwards arraigned on fraud charges, imprisoned for five years and expelled from the House of Commons. The census never again took advertising.
Despite this uneven start, the 1921 census went on to be one of the most successful in history. One effect of moving the census to summer was that seaside towns including Blackpool and Southend, and other holiday destinations such as Ayrshire, recorded a massive increase in population compared with the rest of the country. Many family historians will find that ancestors were not at home on census day but in a hotel or guest house.
Where to find 1921 census records
The 1921 census for England and Wales is now available on Findmypast. Records cost £2.50 for every transcript and £3.50 for every individual image, with a 10% discount for Findmypast’s Pro subscribers. You can also view the records for free at access hubs at The National Archives in London, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and Manchester Central Library. The 1921 census for Scotland will be released on ScotlandsPeople later this year.
What questions were asked in the 1921 census?
The 1921 census form was the most complicated to date, and used very specific language. It required the details of everyone who was “alive at midnight on the night of Sunday, 24th April 1921” as well as anyone not enumerated elsewhere who “arrives and is received into the household or establishment on the morning of Monday, 25th April”.
Unsurprisingly for a nation that had lost so many lives during the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic, there was intense interest in children. One new section titled “Orphanhood” contained a question for all children aged under 15, to be answered “Both Alive” if parents were living, with other options of “Mother Dead”, “Father Dead” or “Both Dead”.
There were 10 rows to allow for enumerating children and stepchildren, each with 16 boxes for indicating the age of that child with an “x”. A column for education required respondents to specify “Whole-time” or “Part-time” study, which included night school as well as full-time education.
Everyone over 15 had to indicate their marital status. Until the 1929 Marriage Act raised it to 16, the minimum age of marriage was 14 for boys and 12 for girls. The fact that the census asked the question only of over-15s suggests that such very early marriages did not take place or were so rare that they could be discounted. For the first time, too, divorce was to be recorded in the marriage column, indicated by a “D”.
In recognition of the detailed personal information requested, this was the first census in which individuals could choose not to give their data to the head of household but instead submit a separate confidential return.
More detail than ever before was required about employment including, for the first time, an employer’s name and address or, if unemployed, the name and address of the last employer. Thanks to this, family historians can trace colleagues of an ancestor or (for those in the armed services) other service people. Separate schedules covered Merchant Navy ships in the waters around the British Isles, ships of the Royal Navy, the Army and, for the first time (since it had been founded only in 1918), RAF units stationed overseas.
Birthplace had to be noted, specifying the county and town or parish in the UK, or if they were born “At Sea”. People born outside the UK had to provide their country and province of birth, and to state whether they were a visitor or resident of the UK, as well as their nationality.
The Welsh, Scottish and Isle of Man schedules asked how many people spoke Welsh, Gaelic or Manx respectively, and how many were bilingual in that language and English.
What did the 1921 census show?
England and Wales were shown to have a combined population of 37,886,699, Scotland 4,882,497. The Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey and other islands totalled 150,504. If the numbers from the British 1921 and the northern Irish census of 1926 are added, then the UK plus its associated islands (including Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man) had a total population of 44,176,261.
The section of the report on “Dependency and Fertility” revealed various impacts of the First World War and the pandemic. During most of the years immediately preceding the census, death rates rose while birth rates fell – partly because men were away and not available for sex, let alone marriage and making a family, and partly because of an apparent reluctance by women to bring babies into a world of conflict and disease. But when both dangers were over, in 1920, more than 1.1 million babies were born – a record year. One result of this birth spurt is that more than 15,000 people in the UK who were enumerated as a baby or child in the census were alive in 2020.
Your female ancestors in 1921 were faced with a statistical problem: even if every woman in the UK wanted to start a family, there were not enough men to go round. More women than men were counted in every census since the first, in 1801, but the 1921 census in England and Wales revealed a particularly wide disparity: 19.8 million women and girls were enumerated, but only 18.1 million men and boys.
This problem was more pronounced for middle-class young women than for those in the working class, because a disproportionately high number of officers had been killed during the First World War compared with those from other ranks. So unless a middle-class woman was prepared to marry ‘beneath her’, many would remain spinsters – whether they wanted to or not.
The 1921 census is particularly important because the 1931 census records for England and Wales were destroyed in a fire in 1942, and there was no census taken in 1941 because of the Second World War. The next census records available are from 1951 and won’t be released until 2052.
Is there a 1921 census for Ireland?
At the time of the 1921 census, Ireland was in tumult. In January 1919, the Dublin parliament established by pro-independence party Sinn Féin had declared Irish independence and the establishment of the Irish Republic. The Irish War of Independence that followed pitted republican forces against the British Army and loyalist supporters. A ceasefire began in July 1921, and British rule in Ireland ended in December. After a transitional period, the Irish Free State was created in 1922 as a dominion within the British Empire, and a loyalist-majority six-county area in the north-east was partitioned to create Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK.
The conflict meant that there was no 1921 census of Ireland. It was followed by the Irish Civil War of 1922-23. The next census of Ireland was carried out in 1926.