Census survey reveals hard times after pandemic and war

census of uk households

The 1921 census survey, taken on 19th June, was a survey of 38 million people living in England and Wales. It was a time of economic turmoil between the first and second world wars as the country was recovering from a global pandemic, the Spanish Flu. It is the largest census record release in England and Wales to date.

Census records are normally taken every ten years and remain closed for 100 years before they are opened to the public. This census survey, however, is of particular importance.

The 1931 Census of England and Wales was destroyed in a fire in 1942, after the census due in 1941 was cancelled because of the outbreak of the Second World War. This means the next census to be opened to the public will be  in 30 years’ time, when the 1951 Census is due to be released in 2052.

The 1921 survey reveals the difficult lives led by many working people in 1921. As put by Keeper at The National Archives, Jeff James, it was a time when “individuals and communities were embarking on a new era where everyday rights and roles were changing.”

For instance, gas fitter, James Bartley, lived in Montgomery Street, in Hove, Sussex along with his wife and three small children, each under the age of five. The family lived in one room of a two bedroomed house, in a road where houses now sell for an average £500,000.

Mr Bartley added an addendum to the bottom of his census form. “Stop talking about your homes for heroes,” he wrote. “Start building some houses and let them at a rent a working man can afford.”

He was referring to the 500,000 new ‘homes for heroes’ promised by prime minister, David Lloyd George, to welcome back returning veterans from the Great War. At the age of 33, Mr Bartley was likely to have been a veteran of the war. It was a time when most tenants lived in private rented accommodation which could be described as ‘squalid’.

Another man, Robert Stevens, was out of work from his occupation as a ‘master tailor’ in Liverpool where he lived with his 13 children.

The family lived in five rooms at an address on Park Street, Wallasey. The two eldest daughters were milliners, while the eldest son worked at a mill in Birkenhead. Another two girls, aged 16 and 14, helped their mother with ‘home duties’, and caring for the five school-aged siblings as well as three younger children.

“Can you please help us, times are hard,” Mr Stevens wrote, in a simple plea at the foot of his census form.

The National Archives record took three years to be conserved and digitised from over 30,000 bound volumes of original documents that was housed on 1.6 kilometres of shelving.

To help those living today to experience one day in the life of those living in the 1920s, the Archive has launched a new programme of events, 20sPeople.

Access to the National Archive  is free if you can visit in person at Kew in west London or either of its two partner locations at Manchester Central Library or the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. Alternatively, for a small fee, the survey is accessible online at www.findmypast.co.uk/1921-census.