The 1921 census gives incredible glimpse at Britain 100 years ago

Captain Tom was a toddler, Beatrix Potter a ‘farmer’ and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appeared to be holding a SEANCE: 1921 census gives incredible glimpse at what famous faces were up to 100 years ago in UK

  • Findmypast and National Archives worked to digitise results of 1921 census which have now been made public
  • Historic record gives astonishing insight into how population of 38million lived and worked in post-war Britain
  • Notable figures include Tolkien, A.A. Milne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Prime Minister David Lloyd George
  • Snapshot shows families faced crippling unemployment and shortage of good homes leading to social unrest
  • This data is significant as 1931 returns was destroyed and 1941 census was abandoned due to World War Two

The lives of every man, woman and child living in England and Wales in 1921 have been revealed, offering an unprecedented snapshot of life across the two nations and a population of 38 million people.

The records feature detailed census returns from Windsor Castle and Chequers to cramped family homes made available to the public for the first time since June 19, 1921. 

In an eerie echo of 2021, Britain in 1921 was recovering from the Spanish flu pandemic, battling a coal miners’ strike, and enduring temperatures of more than 90F.

The handwritten pages of the census, contained in more than 30,000 volumes, shed light on the private lives of 38 million people living in England and Wales at the time, including some of the countries’ most notable historical figures.

Entries can be found for the likes of authors Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, JRR Tolkien and Beatrix Potter, as well as political figures such as Prime MInister David Lloyd George and Nancy Astor, who was the country’s first female MP. 

It also shines a light on the grim reality of post-First World War Britain, amid crippling unemployment and social unrest, a changing jobs market, and a shortage of suitable housing leaving whole families packed into one-bedroom properties.

People urged the Government to stop talking and start doing and condemned the census as a waste of taxpayers’ money at times of ‘such unemployment’. 

The census features a number of famous names and their families, including the prime minister David Lloyd George and King George V, as well as one-year-old Thomas Moore – who would find fame a century later as NHS fundraiser Captain Sir Tom.

Historian and broadcaster professor David Olusoga said: ‘I think it shows a snapshot of a country in absolute trauma, a country in the midst of trying to recover from what was the biggest rupture in its history.

The lives of every man, woman and child living in England and Wales in 1921 have been revealed like never before, with detailed census returns from post-war Britain made available to the public for the first time through the National Archives. Pictured: The 1921 census entry for King George V and his household including Queen Mary and their four children

Several famous British authors are referenced in the 1921 census including A.A. Milne, H.G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien

Similarities: Women wear masks to protect against influenza, which killed 20 million people between 1918 and 1920


Buses and train services were cancelled and postponed as a result of the impact of Spanish flu. Pictured left: A bus being disinfected in London in 1920. Right: A London Underground train being cleaned amid the coronavirus pandemic in May 2020

Among those featured in the census records made public today is British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and his family. Pictured: Lloyd George with French representatives during a Conference at Chequers in February 1921. Left to right: French Prime Minister Aristide Briand, Marie Renee Weygand, Lloyd George, General Maxime Weygand and Marshal Ferdinand Foch

1921: Contestants for the Folkestone Beauty Show are pictured preparing for the competition 100 years ago 

Mr and Mrs John Miller and their children attend a GER (Great Eastern Railway) sports day at Romford in London, July 1921

‘It captures one of the most dramatic and dangerous moments.

‘It’s uniquely intimate, and the fact that in 1921 there are people who in some ways subvert the census to speak to power I think is the most fascinating and the most moving thing of all.

‘This is a society without anything like the sort of media access that we have today.

How this civil servant’s political cartoon protest accurately predicted the Second World War 

Census record, in which civil servant Arthur Vince, a tax officer for the Inland Revenue in London, defaced his 1921 census return with an astonishingly prophetic political cartoon

A civil servant defaced his 1921 census return with an astonishingly prophetic political cartoon depicting officials in top hats ‘counting cannon fodder’ for the ‘next war’.

Arthur Vince, a 28-year-old tax officer for the Inland Revenue in London, used his ink sketch to predict that the world would go to war in 1936.

The cartoon features three men in top hats – deemed to be the elite – being served a cup of tea by a maid, sitting around a table with a piece of paper in front of them containing the words ‘War 1936’.

An annotation says they are ‘counting available ‘cannon fodder’. Next war 1936 from 1921 census returns!’

Mr Vince was only three years out with his forecast, the Second World War beginning in September 1939.

Tragically, it is believed that Mr Vince’s son Bobby, included in the 1921 census aged just one year and four months, was among those killed in the war predicted by his father.

Mr Vince was one of several people who used their census returns for political protest, with others lamenting living conditions and the cost of the exercise.

Historian David Olusoga said: ‘This is somebody not just complaining about the indifference of the elite – he is actually making a prediction in 1921 that turns out to be accurate. 

‘These are stunning, absolutely incredible moments when someone from the past – an anonymous person who we know very little about – speaks to us through the census.’

‘In some ways, people are using the census the way many of us use Twitter today – we’ll copy in someone in a position of power on a tweet complaining about something, and they are kind of doing that.

‘They have a lot to complain about.’

Among the yellowed, handwritten pages of the census are some of the 20th century’s most famous people – as well as one whose fleeting time in the limelight was much more recent.

The century-old document contains mention of a certain Thomas Moore, better known now as ‘Captain Tom’, who would go on to become one of the totems of the nation’s stoicism during the coronavirus pandemic by raising more than £30 million for the NHS through walking lengths of his garden.

But back in 1921, Captain Sir Tom would have unlikely been able to accomplish a few strides of the feat that would seal him a place in the nation’s hearts.

Young master Moore, of Keighley in Yorkshire, was just a year and one month old when the census was completed.

He is listed as the son of Wilfred, a 36-year-old building contractor, and 34-year-old Isabel, whose occupation was listed as ‘household duties’.

The family, complete with young Thomas’s four-year-old sister Freda, lived in a six-bedroom property at the time the census was completed.

While Captain Tom’s name would have been unremarkable to census officials, others contained within the returns would certainly have stood out among the millions of records.

None more so than David Lloyd George, prime minister during the latter stages of the First World War, who spent June 19 1921 – when the census was recorded – at Chequers along with his wife, Margaret, son Richard and his family.

The statesman records his personal occupation as ‘Prime Minister’, his employment being ‘His Majesty’s Government’, and his place of work as ’10 Downing Street’.

Aside from the six family members inside the Buckinghamshire residence, the census also lists three civil servants as being present, including his private secretary Edward William Macleay Grigg, as well as 13 servants – the youngest being a 15-year-old kitchen maid called Lavinia originally from Hadfield in Derbyshire.

The form, which shows there were eight males and 17 females present, was filled out by Lloyd George himself.

Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill appears to have been visiting General Spears in Malling at the time of the 1921 census.

Churchill, who was 46 at the time and gives his occupation as ‘Secretary of State’, is listed as a visitor at the address with wife Clementine. He was Secretary of State for Colonies at the time.

Another famous name contained within the pages was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of detective series Sherlock Holmes.

He counted three overnight visitors to his home when the census was taken, prompting suggestions from historians that the known paranormal investigator may have been taking part in a seance – a ceremony conducted to make contact with the dead.

Pictured: Author George Orwell  was 17 at the time and is listed as a visitor in this entry under his real name Eric Arthur Blair

Pictured: Future Prime Minister Winston Churchill was visiting General Spears during the census with his wife Clementine

Historians suggested Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have been holding a seance as It is believed the entry references Ada Besinnet, a known US medium, while Mr McKenzie was a parapsychologist who founded British College of Psychic Science

Pictured: the guests listed at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s home. It is believed the entry references Ada Besinnet (bottom entry), a known US medium, while Mr McKenzie (top entry) was a parapsychologist who founded British College of Psychic Science

Also referenced in the census published today is the country’s first female MP Nancy Astor, pictured here with her son William Waldorf Astor at the Christ Church and Bullingdon Club Point-to-Point Steeplechase, in Berkshire, England, in 1928


Among those referenced in the census are British author Agatha Christie, then aged 29 (left) and future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (pictured, right, in 1921) who was Secretary of State for Colonies at the time the census was taken


The census includes entries from Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming (left)who was working as a bacteriologist for St Mary’s Hospital in London at the time and novelist Rudyard Kipling (right), most well known for writing the Jungle Book

Pictured: This record from the 1921 Census which was published today shows English journalist, novelist, poet and writer Rudyard Kipling and his wife Caroline. His most famous writings include The Jungle Book and The Ballad of East and West

Pictured: The 1921 census shows Sir Alexander Fleming, Scottish physician and microbiologist, best known for discovering penicillin in 1928. He was 39 at the time of the Census and working as a ‘bacteriologist’ for St Mary’s Hospital in London 

The 1921 Census record, shows Thomas Moore, better known as Sir Captain Tom, who walked 100 laps of his garden during the pandemic and raised £33m for NHS charities. At the time the Census was taken Tom was 1 years old and living in Keighley

Pictured: Interestingly, children’s author and illustrator Beatrix Potter can be found under her married name – Helen Heelis – and lists her occupation as a farmer due to her passion for sheep breeding and conservation at her home in the Lake District

Among the many famous writers referenced, the Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne is featured in the census with his family

Pictured: The Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien’s immaculate handwriting is on full display in this entry which was made while he was reading English Literature at Leeds University as the youngest professor at the institute at the time

One of the most notable people recorded in the census which was published today is Sir Captain Tom Moore (pictured with his knighthood in 2020). Young master Moore, of Keighley in Yorkshire, was just a year and one month old at the time

Captain Sir Tom Moore (pictured), who shot to fame with fundraising for the NHS, was just a baby when the census was taken

Windsor Castle was home to the King and more than 150 servants, the 1921 census has revealed 

King George V was joined at Windsor Castle by 210 other people, including his wife and four of his six children, when the 1921 census was recorded, the monarch’s handwritten return shows.

Queen Mary, and grown-up offspring Edward, Albert, Henry and Mary are all included on the multi-page form, recorded as the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Prince Henry, and Princess Mary, respectively.

Their youngest son, Prince John, had died two years earlier aged 13, while 18-year-old Prince George is listed as serving on board HMS Iron Duke, positioned off Malta, when the census was completed on June 19.

There are almost 40 further visitors present, including King Alfonso XIII of Spain and other dignitaries, the seventh Duke of Richmond, Lord Revelstroke, and Lord and Lady Stamfordham.

Others present include military guards, clerks, and the King’s royal librarian John Fortescue.

A total of 151 people are listed as being some kind of servant, including 36 housemaids, 18 footmen, 17 valets, four wine cellar staff, and a luggage packer.

The youngest member of Windsor staff is a 15-year-old ‘under housemaid’ from Kensington called Maud Alice Swoad.

But even Maud did not hold the title of being the youngest person inside the 490-room Windsor Castle on June 19 1921.

Instead, the honour goes to nine-year-old Hilda Craddock, daughter of 48-year-old John Craddock, a petty officer based full-time at the royal estate.

The form was completed by Sir Derek Keppel, master of the household.

Records show the 62-year-old author was joined by Jean, his 40-year-old wife, and their three children Denis, Malcolm and Jean junior, aged 12, 10 and eight, respectively, as well as five female servants.

But there were also three guests present – married couple James Hewat McKenzie and Barbara McKenzie, 54 and 51, and 30-year-old ‘spinster’ entered into the census by Conan Doyle as ‘Ada Bassinet’ from ‘Toledo, USA’.

It is believed this was in fact Ada Besinnet, a known American medium, while Mr McKenzie was a parapsychologist who founded the British College of Psychic Science.

A 29-year-old novelist Agatha Christie, who was married to Archibald Christie at the time, was visiting friends in Torquay just a year into her literary career.

Another author, Beatrix Potter, had a long-established career as a writer of children’s stories following the success of The Tale Of Peter Rabbit in the early 1900s.

But it was another profession – and her married name, rather than her pen name – that appeared on the 1921 census.

Helen Beatrix Heelis, the 54-year-old wife of solicitor William Heelis, was described as a ‘farmer’ due to her passion for sheep breeding and conservation at her home in the Lake District. 

Meanwhile, Nancy Astor, Britain’s first female MP, was one of more than 25 people at her home on the night of the census.

The Plymouth Sutton MP was present with her husband, Waldorf Astor, and their young sons Michael and John, as well as a string of visitors, including a niece and a cousin.

But it isn’t just the private lives of notable figures that have been revealed as the census also sheds light on the incredible hardship suffered by the working class at the time. 

Among them was James Bartley, a father of three young children from Sussex, who wrote: ‘Stop talking about your homes for heroes and start building some houses and let them at a rent a working man can afford to pay.’

Retired Army officer Harold Orpen, 46, originally from London, apologised to census officials for providing a typed response rather than the required handwritten one, adding: ‘I lost half my right hand in the late war and cannot write properly.’

Alice Underwood, 53, from Buckinghamshire, was more forthright.

‘What a wicked waste of taxpayers’ money at this time of unemployment,’ she wrote.


Among several famous authors who took part in the 1921 census are Beatrix Potter (left), listed under her married name Helen Heelis, and Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien (right) who was living in Leeds, West Yorkshire, at the time of the census


Among those included in the census are authors George Orwell (left), listed under his real name of Eric Blair, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (pictured right with Lady Conan Doyle in 1920), whose entry prompted suggestions from historians that the known paranormal investigator may have been taking part in a seance – a ceremony conducted to make contact with the dead

Pictured: This census record shows Harold Orphen, a former captain of the King’s Regiment, who had to type his census responses due to the injuries sustained in the First World War, highlighting the devastating effects it had on the population

Social unrest: Father-of-three James Bartley used his 1921 census return to complain about a lack of affordable housing

Alice Underwood, 53, from Slough, described census as ‘a wicked waste of taxpayers money at this time of unemployment’

Hirohito, the Crown Prince of Japan in Fleet Street, London, with the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII, in May 1921

Pictured: Laboratory tests at a beet sugar factory in Newark, 1921. The public are now able to learn about life in 1921 as results of the 1921 census have been made public for the first time after years of work by Findmypast and the National Archives

Kensal Green, London, in 1921: After the war, houses were built identically to reduce cost, space and building time but the 1921 census has revealed that many working class families were living in cramped conditions and called for more to be done

Mining and service industries were most dominant in 1921

There were almost as many females working as servants in England and Wales a century ago as there were males working in coal mines, the 1921 census reveals.

The once-in-a-decade register, recording the details of around 38 million people, showed that just over 1.0 million women and girls were employed in the ‘private personal service’ industry at the time, while just over 1.1 million men and boys worked in coal.

The figures provide a snapshot of life two-and-a-half years after the conclusion of the First World War, and show the second most common job for males was in agriculture (1.0 million), followed by building and construction (710,000).

For females, the second most common job was in cotton manufacture (370,000), followed by local government (240,000).

It came at a time of mass unemployment across the UK, reaching a post-war high of 2.5 million people.

The 1921 census was more detailed than any previously undertaken, having asked people about their place of work, employer and industry, meaning high street names such as Sainsbury’s, Rolls-Royce and Selfridges appear on its pages for the first time.

Another returnee also hinted at social unease across the country, where unemployment would more than double to 2.2 million by the summer.

Constance Beatrice Halstead, of Burnley in Lancashire, wrote: ‘The only difference between the ordinary worker and a convict in England is that the worker may choose where to lay his head at night, and the convict’s choice becomes the command of another.’ 

Others appeared to take the task much less seriously.

Albert Crockford, a 31-year-old printer from London, married to Florence, described three-year-old daughter Joan’s occupation as ‘keeping mum busy’.

And the Webb household in Lancashire – husband and wife Thomas, 53, and Maria, 50, along with Thomas’s mother-in-law Sarah, 70, and brother-in-law Albert, 34 – included ‘Teddy the dog’ on their census.

The census prompted some households to demonstrate their artistic flair, with one return including an extra leaf of paper containing a pencil sketch described as ‘Spotty Eric, the Mad Sailor’.

Another drawing depicted a head and shoulders image of a woman with accentuated features, carrying the caption: ‘Ma, she’s making eyes at one.’ 

While basic details of the 1921 census were released shortly after its compilation, the digitised records offer the first glimpse at individual returns.

Audrey Collins, historian at the National Archives, said: ‘We can actually see at first-hand peoples’ quite heartfelt comments.

‘You don’t protest about something if you’re just a little bit irritated; these are real cries from the heart.’

She added: ‘Undoubtedly, things were very, very grim for an awful lot of people in the 1920s.

‘There were an awful lot of people out of work, and that didn’t really get better over the coming decade.

‘So I think 1921 is very much a good survey of what the population was settling down to after the rigours of the First World War, but also it was the shape of things to come in the 1920s.’

The impact of the First World War is writ large across the millions of census pages, which genealogy website Findmypast and the National Archives have spent three years conserving and digitising.

The census reveals there were 1,096 women for every 1,000 men recorded, the highest discrepancy since the census began in 1801, and by 1951 was still 1,081 per 1,000 men.

This means that in 1921 there were around 1.7 million more women than men in England and Wales, the largest difference ever seen in a census, underlining the deadly significance of the First World War on men.

Indeed the population grew by just 4.9 per cent between 1911 and 1921, to 37.9 million, having previously seen a double-digit increase every decade since records began.

The 1921 census is more detailed than any previously undertaken, having asked people about their place of work, employer and industry for the first time, meaning high street names such as Sainsbury’s, Rolls-Royce and Selfridges appear on its pages.

Unlike previous years, people were also able to declare their marital status as ‘divorced’, with more than 16,000 people doing so.

Pictured: The 1921 Census record, which show the Prime Minister David Lloyd George, aged 58, at Chequers

However, this figure is expected to be much lower than the actual number due to the stigma surrounding divorce at the time.

Mary McKee, Findmypast census expert, described the careful handling and digitisation of more than 18 million pages of census document as ‘three years of a labour of love’.

She added: ‘In terms of the national story, I think it’s going to be impressive what you can find in these records.

‘But the other side of it is learning more about our own unique family stories and those individual 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 data proved even more significant given the 1931 returns were destroyed in a fire at a storage unit, while the 1941 census was abandoned due to the continuing Second World War.

The most recent census for England and Wales was sent to households in March last year.

The 1921 census is available online at findmypast.co.uk as well as in person at the National Archives in Kew, the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth and the Manchester Central Library.

HOW 1921 CHANGED BRITAIN: KEY EVENTS FROM 100 YEARS AGO 

Pictured: David Lloyd George, Prime Minister from December 1916 to October 1922. He fell ill with Spanish flu at the age 55 – the same age Boris Johnson was struck down by coronavirus

 8 January: Chequers is made an official residence of the Prime Minister

12 February: Winston Churchill is appointed Colonial Secretary

16 February: Unemployment stands at more than 1million as the Government announces an increase in unemployment benefit 

1 March: Australia’s national cricket team becomes the first to complete a whitewash of the touring England team in The Ashes 

31 March: The government returns coal mines from wartime control to private owners, who demand wage cuts, sparking calls from the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain on its partner unions to join it in strike action. The government declares a state of emergency for the first time under the Emergency Powers Act 1920

1 April: Beginning of lockout of striking coal miners  

3 April: Coal rationing is introduced  

5 May: London Schedule of Payments sets out the World War I reparations payable by the German Weimar Republic and countries that are successors to the Central Powers

7 May: Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan arrives on an official visit

24 May: In the Northern Ireland general election for the new Parliament of Northern Ireland (held by single transferable vote), Ulster Unionists win 40 out of 52 seats

10 June: Unemployment hits 2.2million

15 June: 2million workers are involved in pay disputes

19 June: 1921 United Kingdom census (excluding Ireland)

22 June: New Parliament of Northern Ireland, assembled at Belfast City Hall, is formally opened by King George V

24 June: World’s largest airship, the R.38, makes its maiden flight at Bedford

25 June: Rainfall ends a drought which has lasted for 100 days

28 June: Coal strike ends with the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain obliged to accept pay cuts and no national bargaining

2 July: Bill Tilden and Suzanne Lenglen retain their Wimbledon titles

9 July: Irish War of Independence comes to an end when a truce, coming into effect at noon on 11 July, is agreed between British and Irish forces

Crowds in Belfast for the state opening of the Northern Ireland Parliament on 22 June 1921

A nanny and child in a London park during a heatwave, June 1921. July of that year saw a heatwave with temperatures exceeding 90F in some parts of South-East England

10/11 July: Heatwave with temperatures exceeding 90F in some parts of South-East England

10 July: Bloody Sunday: clashes between Catholics and Protestants in Belfast result in sixteen deaths (23 over the surrounding four-day period)  

28 July: First registration of practitioners of dentistry under the Dentists Act, making it a fully regulated profession

19 August: Unemployment drops to 1.6million

7 September: David Lloyd George summons the Cabinet at Inverness to discuss an independent Ireland’s relationship with Britain

9 September: Charlie Chaplin is met by thousands on a visit to London 

17 September: Ernest Shackleton sets sail on his last expedition to Antarctica

23 September: Margaret Wintringham, a second female MP enters Parliament, in succession to her late husband at the Louth by-election

11 November: The British Legion holds first official Poppy Day

6 December: British and Irish negotiators sign the Anglo-Irish Treaty in London, granting independence to the Irish Free State

9 December: John William Gott becomes the last person in England to be imprisoned for blasphemous libel

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