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1921 census released online reveals life in post-World War One Britain

The lives of the 38 million people living in England and Wales in 1921 have been revealed in a census newly released online, which records figures such as a young Captain Sir Tom Moore, Beatrix Potter and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The census – locked away in vaults for a century – was taken on 19 June 1921 and shows similarities with our own post-COVID world.

From the grand abode of Windsor Castle to prisons, hospitals and cramped family houses, each resident was asked to complete a survey, including questions about their age, birthplace and job.

Some 38,000 staff were sent to knock on the doors of more than 8.5 million households for the census – at the time the most detailed ever.

The digitised version – available online at findmypast.co.uk after three years of work – gives the first glimpse at the individual records.

Census showed devastating toll of WWI

The census also highlights the awful toll of the First World War as it shows about 1.7 million more women than men, the largest difference ever seen in a census.

For the first time, people were also able to put their marital status as “divorced”, with more than 16,000 people doing so.

Jeff James, chief executive at the National Archives, said: “The 1921 census allows a snapshot of life 100 years ago, at a time when individuals and communities were embarking on a new era where everyday rights and roles were changing.”

He said the records reveal “what has changed over time but also provide familiarity with our lives today”.

In an echo of 2021, Britain in 1921 was recovering from the Spanish Flu pandemic while also experiencing economic turmoil.

One-year-old Thomas Moore was in census

Prominent figures such as writers Beatrix Potter, J R R Tolkien and Sherlock Holmes’ author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are among the handwritten entries.

There is even an entry recording a one-year-old Thomas Moore, who went on to raise millions for the NHS nearly a century after his birth.

Illustrating fears of the Spanish Flu, some of the pages are stained with disinfectant, and anger over poor living conditions and poverty is also clear.

James Bartley, a gas fitter in Hove, wrote on his record that his family of five was living in one room, adding “stop talking about your homes for heroes and start building some”.

Some unhappiness at doing the survey

Retired army officer Harold Orpen, 46, apologised to officials for his typed response rather than the required handwritten one, adding: “I lost half my right hand in the late war and cannot write properly.”

Some were also unhappy at having to fill out the survey at all.

Alice Underwood, 53, from Buckinghamshire, wrote: “What a wicked waste of taxpayers’ money at this time of unemployment.”

A census has been done every decade since 1801 but documents are legally required to remain secret for 100 years.

The next release won’t be for 30 years because the 1931 census was lost in a fire during the Second World War, and the 1941 census was never taken.

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