An intimate and unique snapshot of a nation reeling from the aftermath of the first world war was made available to the public on Thursday as the National Archives’ 1921 Census of England and Wales went online.
The unprecedented glimpse into life 100 years ago reveals the very personal impact of the economic turmoil, housing crisis and major social changes caused by the war and the Spanish flu pandemic, capturing the desperation, anger and sadness of the 38 million individuals who filled in the form.
It also reveals a very British sense of subversion and humour: for the first time, the Census asked the occupation of every member of the household.
With her tongue firmly in her cheek, Constance Bernard Fitzhamon of Middlesex, listed her three young children’s occupations as “Getting into mischief”, “Getting into more mischief” and, for her 11-month old child, as “occupying feeding bottles”.
Despite being an official document whose purpose was to collate dry statistics, the Census glitters with emotional gems: John Platt’s son was born in Monmouthshire, Wales, on the very night the Census was filled out: “Baby Boy Platt” was proudly listed by his father as being just two hours old on the form, too young to even have a name.
On the same day, also in Monmouthshire, a baby girl born appears to have been named literally as the Census was filled out. Martha Wall initially recorded her newborn baby as “Baby one day old” before crossing it out and adding the name Rose.
Census enumerators, local officials who often knew the families, sometimes added extra details to the forms. William Hamilton of Newcastle upon Tyne mysteriously noted that he had a private income. The enumerator added – even more mysteriously – “Never worked. Enjoys Father’s Egyptian Pension”.
The British love of animals – or perhaps the national fondness for mild subversion – is evident in the many families who listed family pets among their household members, including “Bobby the Dog” and “Tarzan the Cat”.
“The census enumerators rarely had a sense of humour about these entries and struck them out,” said David Olusoga, professor of public history at the University of Manchester.
Francis Sutcliffe of Kirkdale, Lancashire, for example, had her entry for “Kitty the Cat” crossed out with the curt explanation that Kitty was merely: “A domestic cat”.
Mary McKee, head of content publishing operations at Findmypast, said they had expected humour and gentle sabotage of a document that was, after all, onerous to complete.
“But what we hadn’t expected was the bureaucratic graffiti,” she said. “People were angry that they had been promised a postwar ‘land fit for heroes’ by the government but were, instead, experiencing mass unemployment and poor housing.”
Many people used the form to protest: “David Lloyd George, build houses”,instructed Henry Burrough in Durham in a large note added to the form. “Lloyd George is hereby requested to bring forth that ‘Land fit for heroes’,” he added. “Nation’s duty to provide houses.”
James Eldon Haynes in Yorkshire agreed. “Out of Work in the Land Fit for Heroes,”he wrote. Robert Stevens in Liverpool, who was out of work and had 12 children, wrote: “Please help me. Times are hard.”
“It’s fascinating to see how many people subverted the Census and used it as a means of protesting to those in power,” said Olusoga. “This use of the Census reminds me of the way people now use Twitter.”
The way the Census had to be filled out unpeeled other intimate details: it had to be completed on 19 June before midnight.
On that night, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, appeared to be holding a seance. “The Census shows he was playing host to a number of mystics and psychics that evening,” said McKee. “A seance seems the logical explanation of that gathering.”
Other hidden treasures were discovered during the three years of intensive conservation and digitisation devoted to the Census.
A dead menagerie of insects were found within its pages: 532 historic insects from a century ago.
“I don’t know what’s been done with them,” said Olusoga. “I like to think a specialist conservationist has whisked them away to start a dead zoo.”