For family historians, census returns are a resource like no other.
The 1841–1911 English and Welsh censuses are now available on all of the major family history websites. If you manage to find your ancestors within them, it can bring them to life, revealing family members, where they lived, and their ages and professions.
Under the 1920 Census Act, the 1921 census can’t be published online until over a hundred years have passed.
However, it was announced last month that Findmypast has won the contract to publish the 1921 England and Wales census in January 2022.
We spoke to Pete Benton, director of population and policy operations at the Office for National Statistics, to find out more.
What can family historians learn from the 1921 census?
The first time we took a national census was in 1801 when the population of England and Wales was something like eight million people. At the time it was done to see whether we had enough fighting men for the Napoleonic Wars and whether we’d be able to feed ourselves, so we asked very broad stuff about agriculture and trade but not much more. 1841 was the first to ask names like a modern census does.
Now we ask questions about our health, our disabilities, about our ethnicity and our religion, because it’s all about understanding equality in the population and planning services.
By 1921 there were 38 million people in England and Wales. It was obviously poignant, because it was the first census after the First World War, so children were asked whether their mother or their father or both were dead. It was the first look at the impact of the war. But it was also the first time people were asked whether a marriage had been dissolved by divorce, and they were asked about the workplace of their employer. When it’s released, people will be able to see who their relatives worked with.
It was also the first time the RAF had been included in the census so it includes RAF staff in overseas stations. We actually removed a couple of questions as well. In the 1911 census we asked about the length of the present marriage and the total number of children born and the number still living, but in 1921 we only asked about how many children or stepchildren the family had, and how many were still alive.
What does the 1921 census reveal about the population?
If you look at the population pyramid in 1911 (pictured), it forms pretty much a nice straight triangle. However, when you get to 1921 there’s a big scallop taken out of the left-hand side, mainly for the ages 20–40. This is because about 700,000 men died during the First World War, and that shows up in the pyramid.
What also shows up is that in the 0–5 age range there was a big reduction in the number of 2, 3 and 4-year-olds compared with the number of 5, 6, 7 and 8-year-olds. The birth rate had dropped dramatically during the war, because men were away. But then what you see in the 1921 census also is that there were a large number of 0 and 1-year-olds, because a whole bunch of babies had been born as men returned from the war. So that shows the change in the population.
What’s fascinating is that when you look at the same picture in 2001, those 0 and 1-year-olds in 1921 are now 80, and they form a ledge at the top of the pyramid showing they’ve got the large number of those who were still alive at 80 but the big drop in the population at 82 and 83-year-olds. So you can see this change.
You see a similar pattern going on after the Second World War. It’s poignant. One of the most striking statistics I’ve ever seen in all of my 25 years doing statistics is how the population has changed as a result of the First and Second World Wars.
The 1921 census results reveal a gap in 2-4 year olds (Credit: ONS)
What is the historical context of the census?
It was delayed which, from my perspective as somebody responsible for census operations, must have been a total nightmare. It was due to take place in late April, but was put back to June because of a coal miners’ strike. We employ thousands of people to help us do the census, so they would have had to change all their plans.
Why are the records held by ONS, and why can they only be released in 2022?
We hold all of the census records from 1921 onwards, and they’re closed for 100 years. Nobody can see any information about people for 100 years. The various laws that govern ONS, including the 1920 Census Act, have strong confidentiality safeguards in them. We hold them so that that protection, that promise, can be kept legally.
Finally, what can we expect from the 2021 census?
For the 2011 census there was the option to do it online, but because we sent out paper questionnaires 85 per cent of households responded on paper. 2021 will be the first time the census is conducted primarily online. People will receive a letter with a unique code for their address – we expect over 70 per cent of people to complete their form online. There will also be some new questions in the census. There’ll be two voluntary questions for people who are over 16, about sexual orientation and gender identity. A third new question will ask if people have ever served in the armed forces. This is so we can produce statistics to monitor the Armed Forces Covenant, a deal between the Government and those who have served in the armed forces, in order to understand their health and employment outcomes, for example, and make sure that they are being well looked after.