What the 1921 census says about British life in the early 20th century

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.

census, published on find my past, features many 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.

This is the last census to be traced until after World War II, making it a rare look at records from the early 20th century.

The 1931 census was destroyed in the fire, while the 1941 census could not be conducted due to the ongoing war.

With a significant gap of thirty years between the newly released census and the next census in 1951, what can we expect to see in the record?

Women not the workplace revolution

Women from Britain moved in greater numbers to replace manpower than were sent to the front lines in France and Belgium.

In large industrial superpowers such as Birmingham, women learned new trades and professions, suddenly doing what was considered “men’s work”.

But it was not going to last.

Dr. Michael Hulme, a historian at the University of Birmingham said, “After World War One, most women went back to doing what they were doing before – if they weren’t starting a new family with their partners.”

“And for most women, it’s domestic service. It’s still one of the biggest employers for women at the time—working in the laundry, for example.”

Women would have to wait until they were called again to experience the change in “the work of men and women” during World War II.

The Divorce Is Finally Filed — But It’s Still Tangled

This is the first census to allow “divorced” as a marital status, and we won’t get another snapshot of people who are divorced on this scale until 1951.

But at the time it still had a huge social stigma – “divorce was still there. It was almost as if you ‘failed'”, Dr. Hulme said.

What was an expensive process, was even more difficult for women at that time.

“For men it was easy, they could divorce their wife on the grounds of adultery. But for women, it was more difficult. They could use adultery, but it must also be something more – cruelty, our Husbands going missing for two years, that sort of thing.”

“After World War I, 75% of those seeking divorce are men.”

“There are many reasons for this – maybe they’ve met someone far away like a nurse, or their wife might be having an affair because she thought her husband was never coming home.”

“Plus, you have men who are coming home with PTSD and struggling to fit back into their previously normal, mundane lives.”

Birmingham’s real-life Peaky Blinders are now among the famous faces recorded in the census – including their leader Thomas Muklow, who is based on the character Tommy Shelby.

Spanish Flu Vs. COVID-19

While the Spanish flu had run its course by then, both the 1921 and 2021 censuses were touched by a deadly worldwide pandemic.

Governments’ responses in the span of a hundred years have not been comparable – no NHS and a largely ineffective national health advisory body led to a confused central response.

But the initial thinking was the same – Dr. Hulme said, “They tried to enforce by keeping your distance from the people, they were disinfecting the trams.”

“They were trying to inspire people to think about their health and hygiene.”

change to another city

The end of the war marked the beginning of another major change for large industrial cities such as Birmingham – the beginning of the shift from heavy industry to light consumer goods.

This proved to be an unexpected boon for the youth. Dr. Hulme said, “Some industries die, but others come to replace them.”

“And the new industries that come up during the interwar period want young, unskilled people.

“So we start to see a lot more freedom during this time, and freedom with finances – and we start to see the real rise of youth culture.”

That youth culture gave us one of our enduring memories of the “roaring 20s” – dandies and flappers.

Will you be looking at tapes and scans of the 1921 census? What are you interested in? Comment below, or talk to us on social media.

Men of the 2nd Battalion of the Warwickshire Regiment at Sutton Coldfield Station in July 1915.

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