Why publication of the 1921 census will matter to labour historians

Due to be published online early next year, the 1921 census will be of interest to labour historians both for the circumstances in which it was collected and for what it may reveal about work and working people.

The 1921 census did not go entirely according to plan. Originally set to take place on Sunday 24 April, it was delayed as industrial action caused by wage cuts and the return of the coal industry to private hands threatened to spiral into a confrontation between the government and trade unions.

Daily Herald newspaper front page: ‘First day of great coal lock-out’
Daily Herald front page, 2 April 1921: ’First day of great coal lock-out’. Click for larger image.

With coal owners riding roughshod over national agreements, forcing through wage reductions of up to 49% in South Wales, and with thousands of men locked out, the Miners Federation of Great Britain attempted to invoke the Triple Alliance of miners, railway and transport workers to deliver a wave of sympathetic action that would force the government’s hand. In turn, Prime Minister David Lloyd George issued regulations under the Emergency Powers Act and recalled troops from Ireland and abroad to confront the unions. As Professor Keith Laybourn noted in his History of British Trade Unionism (Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1992), he need not have worried: neither the National Transport Workers Union nor the National Union of Railwaymen heeded the call, with NUR General Secretary Jimmy Thomas telling newspaper reporters: ‘It’s all off boys.’

But that was not all. As the Irish War of Independence raged on, no attempt was even made to take a census on the island of Ireland that year.

‘The census. How it is to be taken, and the machines which render it possible’: From The Sphere, 16 April 1921. Click for larger image.

In the end, there was a census for England, Scotland and Wales, but it did not take place until 19 June. By which time many people had begun to go on holiday – ensuring that seaside towns appeared in the first analysis to have increased their populations massively since 1911, when the previous census avoided the holiday season. Blackpool alone seemed to have grown by 67% between censuses.

With the Census Act 1920 barring the disclosure of much of the data collected for one hundred years and a day, there has until now been no way to access the information in household returns. From early 2022, however, that will change, with The National Archives having given the commercial contract for online publication of the census for England and Wales to genealogy website FindMyPast. Although no firm date has yet been fixed, and no price published, there are hopes that the service could go live as early as January.

There are separate plans for the publication of the 1921 Scottish census, which falls within the remit of National Records of Scotland (NRS), a non-ministerial department of the Scottish Government.

The publication of a new census is, of course, big news among family historians. But labour history researchers have also made increasing use of both data and individual returns. Censuses from 1841 onward have enabled historians to track urban growth, demographics and occupational patterns, and to understand more about relationships within families and communities. Using census evidence, the late Malcolm Chase noted that the 1840s saw the birth of hundreds of children in England named Feargus, after the Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor – a name barely used outside Ireland among babies born in earlier decades.

However, the broader range of work-related questions in the 1921 census compared with that of 1911 promises even richer pickings for labour historians.

Screenshot of census front cover showing the words 'Census, England & Wales, 1921'

Alongside questions about the occupations of those in the household, anyone completing the form in 1921 was asked to provide information about each person’s employer and the address of their place of work. Those out of work were instructed to give their last employer and add “out of work”. There were also questions about education. For Wales and Monmouthshire, there was an extra question for each person (over three years) on whether they spoke English and Welsh, English only or Welsh only and in Scotland there were questions about whether each person (over three years) spoke Gaelic only and also whether they were entitled to benefits under the National Insurance (Health) Acts.

The data will, of course, reflect the impact of the First World War on society: women moved into a wide range of jobs previously barred to them during the war, and despite attempts to force them out in favour of men returning to civilian life, they remained a larger presence in the workplace than they had in pre-war years. And more than 800,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel died between 1914 and 1918, creating a lasting imbalance in the population. Britain was also in the depths of a deep economic slump by the time of the census, with economic output having fallen by as much as 25% since 1918 – unemployment and poverty were rife.

Digitising the census will have been a monumental task. The census covers nearly 38 million people living in England and Wales, and the pre-publication process has involved scanning every page in the 28,152 bound volumes of original household returns – a total of 8.5 million household questionnaires, completed in the householder’s own handwriting. To give a sense of the scale: the volumes occupy 1.6 linear kilometres of shelving, while the digitised records take up 200 terabytes of computer storage in JPEG2000 format (and would have run to 1.4 petabytes as TIFF files).

In addition to English and Welsh households, the census covers the Isle of Man and Channel Islands. Also included are merchant ships in the waters of England and Wales, all ships of the Royal Navy, and army and (for the first time) RAF units stationed overseas. This will include units on occupation duties following the First World War, or based in territories newly under British administration as a result of the war, such as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq).

Unfortunately, it appears that, following the release of the 1921 census, there will be no such similar projects for another thirty years. The entire 1931 census was destroyed in a fire at an Office of Works store in Hayes, Middlesex, in 1942 that led to the total loss of ‘schedules, enumeration books, plans of division and miscellaneous material stored in cupboards etc’. And there was no 1941 census due to the Second World War. With the benefit of census data, the world of 1951 is likely to look very different to that of 1921.

More information on plans to publish the 1921 census for England and Wales is on the FindMyPast website.

The Daily News, 4 April 1921: miners’ families At Tyldesley Colliery in Lancashire gather coal for the difficult days ahead. Click for larger image.