The lives of every man, woman and child living in England and Wales in 1921 are revealed as never before, with detailed census returns made available to the public for the first time in the cramped family homes from Windsor Castle and Checkers.
The records, released after 100 years locked in a vault, offer an unprecedented snapshot of life in both countries, capturing the personal details of 38 million people on 19 June 1921.
The census includes several famous names and their families, including Prime Ministers David Lloyd George and King George V, as well as one-year-old Thomas Moore – who would rise to fame a century later as NHS fundraiser Captain Sir Tom.
It also highlights the grim reality of post-World War I Britain, packing entire families into one-bedroom properties amid unemployment and social unrest, a changing job market and a lack of suitable housing.
Rebecca Hayward, a Findmypast conservation technician, assessing the loss of one of the 30,000 volumes of the 1921 census (Michael Buck/Findmypast/PA)
Historian and broadcaster Professor David Olusoga told the PA news agency: “I think it shows a snapshot of a country that is in complete shock, a country that is trying to recover from the biggest breakdown in its history. .
“It captures one of the most dramatic and dangerous moments.”
Among those whose return to the census underscored the hardship faced by the working classes was James Bartley, father of three young Sussex children, who wrote: “Stop talking about your houses to the heroes and build some houses Start over and let them do the work for hire. The man can pay.”
Retired Army officer Harold Orpen, 46, originally from London, apologized to census officials for providing a typed response rather than the required handwriting, saying: “I lost half my right hand in the late war and rightly so. I can’t write.”
The census includes handwritten pleas from members of the public for more affordable housing (Michael Buck/FindMyPast/PA).
Alice Underwood, 53, of Buckinghamshire, was more outspoken.
“What a horrific waste of taxpayers’ money in this time of unemployment,” she wrote.
While the original details of the 1921 census were released soon after its compilation, digital records offer the first glimpse at individual returns.
National Archives historian Audrey Collins said: “We can actually see for the first time quite a lot of heartfelt comments from people. If you’re a little irritable you don’t object; it’s a genuine cry from the heart.”
She continued: “Undoubtedly, things were very, very serious for a lot of people in the 1920s.
Historian David Olusoga said the census ‘captures one of the most dramatic and dangerous moments in history’ (Nootopia/BBC/PA)
“There were a lot of people out of work, and it really didn’t get better in the decade to come.
“So I think 1921 is a very good survey of what population was settling in after the rigors of World War I, but it was also the size of things to come in the 1920s.”
The impact of World War I is written extensively on the millions of census pages that genealogy website FindMyPast and the National Archives spent three years preserving and digitizing.
The census shows that there were 1,096 females for every 1,000 males recorded, the highest discrepancy since the beginning of the census in 1801, and 1,081 per 1,000 males by 1951.
This means that in 1921 there were about 1.7 million more women than men in England and Wales, the largest difference ever recorded in the census, which underscores the deadly importance of World War I on men.
In fact the population grew only 4.9% between 1911 and 1921, to 37.9 million, a double-digit increase in every decade since the first records began.
The number of years it took 500 employees of the National Archives and FindMyPast to process and digitize the 1921 census
The 1921 census is more detailed than any before, asking people about their place of work and industry for the first time, meaning high street names such as Sainsbury’s, Rolls-Royce and Selfridge’s on its pages appear to.
Unlike in previous years, people were able to declare their marital status as “divorced,” with over 16,000 people doing so.
However, this figure is expected to be much lower than the actual number due to the stigma surrounding divorce at the time.
FindMyPast census expert Mary Mackie described the careful handling and digitization of over 18 million pages of census documentation as “three years of labor of love.”
He continued: “In terms of the national story, I think it would be impressive what you can find in these records.
Laura Going, a Findmypast technician, scanning individual pages of 30,000 volumes of the 1921 census (Mikael Buck/Findmypast/PA)
“But the flip side of this is learning more about our own unique family stories and the personal stories that are found in each individual document.”
The census has been completed every 10 years since 1801, although documents are legally required to remain secret for 100 years.
The 1921 figures proved even more important, as the 1931 returns were destroyed in a fire in a storage unit, while the 1941 census was abandoned as World War II continued.
The most recent census for England and Wales was sent to households in March last year.
1921 Census Available Online findmypast.co.uk As well as the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth and personally at the Manchester Central Library.