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Sneak peek of 1921 census released ahead of January publication

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The public will be able to learn more about how their ancestors lived and worked in the wake of the First World War and Spanish flu pandemic when the 1921 census is released in January.

Taken on June 19, 1921, the records hold information about nearly 38 million people who lived in England and Wales between two wars, during a period of economic turmoil and when women had just won the right to vote.

The First World War’s impact on society was the biggest to be reflected in the survey, according to Audrey Collins, records specialist in family history at the National Archives.

“You’ve got the soldiers who came back damaged either physically or mentally. Lots of people died in the flu pandemic, lots of people were disabled by it. There was a big change in the balance of occupations in particular and the balance of the sexes,” she told the PA news agency.

Genealogy website Findmypast and the National Archives on Wednesday revealed a glimpse into the census findings, which they have spent three years digitising, ahead of next year’s publication.

Apart from people’s birthplaces, names, ages and jobs, the questionnaire also recorded who lived in a home at that particular time, as well as occupants’ relationship to the head of the household – putting their stories in the context of their families and communities.

The 1921 census is more detailed than any previous one taken, as it asked people about their place of work, employer and industry for the first time, as well as whether they were in full-time or part-time education.

Unlike in earlier surveys, respondents could select “Divorced” as an option for marital status.

The census also asked whether children were orphaned, revealing the impact of the First World War, with 730,000 children recorded with “Father dead” compared with 260,000 with “Mother dead”.

1921 Census documents
An insect that died at some point in the last 100 years is removed from the pages of the 1921 census during the conservation process (Findmypast/PA)

“That will be a really interesting one, where we’ve got potentially blended families with widows or widowers remarrying,” Ms Collins said.

Aside from households, the census also holds information on people who lived in institutions such as hospitals or prisons, barracks, naval bases and workhouses.

Also included are Royal Navy vessels and RAF units stationed overseas, including in territories newly under British administration following the war, such as Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq.

From January 6, 2022, anyone will be able to view the census online on Findmypast, allowing them to find out about their ancestors and discover the history of their home or local area.

Ms Collins said: “There’s always people who find something they weren’t expecting. Some completely unexpected relative might have been visiting, or some really interesting occupations. Sometimes people find out their granddad was in prison.”

1921 Census documents
Instructions on how to complete the 1921 census are included in one of the 30,000 volumes of original documents (Findmypast/PA)

The documents can only be opened to the public next year because under the Census Act of 1920 they must remain secret for 100 years.

The census has been carried out every 10 years since 1801, but two surveys are missing from the national records.

The 1931 survey for England and Wales was completely destroyed in a blaze in 1942 at Hayes, Middlesex, where it was being stored, while the 1941 census was never taken because of the Second World War.

That makes the 1921 census all the more valuable for historians, as the next one is not set to be released until 2052.

1921 Census documents released
Hundreds of conservators, technicians and transcribers have been working to make the census accessible online (Findmypast/PA)

A team from Findmypast and the National Archives has worked to conserve, transcribe and scan the 1921 census, consisting of more than 30,000 volumes of delicate original documents stored on 1.6 linear kilometres of shelving.

Mary McKee, head of content publishing operations at Findmypast, said: “Over the course of the restoration and digitisation process, we have discovered thousands of extraordinary stories from the lives of seemingly ordinary people as well as an abundance of famous figures who helped shaped the world we now live in.

“This includes literary giants, cultural icons, inventors and innovators, pioneering women, royalty, politicians, campaigners and reformers, forgotten figures and much more.

“We can’t wait to help people discover their ancestors, uncover the history of their homes or reveal the secrets hidden in these pages when the 100-year rule lifts.”

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