Time collapsed as I saw how my grandad lived a century ago. History turned intimate

Last summer, I visited a facility run by the Office for National Statistics, a place in which the raw material of history was in the final stages of being made ready for public release. The centre of operations was a large, open-plan office, one half dominated by tall metal racks on which hundreds of large boxes were stored, the other filled with rows of desks on which digital scanning equipment had been set up. There the 1921 census for England and Wales, all 38m entries, held in 30,000 bound ledgers, was being digitised and conserved.

My visit took place in the final, scaled-back weeks of a colossal process that had begun three years earlier. The team from the genealogy company Findmypast and the National Archives had almost finished their work and there was a palpable sense of anticipation. Last week, the fruits of those three years’ work were released.

The publication of a census is a once-in-a-decade event. After each census is taken, the millions of individual census returns are gathered together and the information within them analysed and condensed into national statistics, the metrics used by politicians to shape policy. But the census forms themselves, filled in by our ancestors, are closed to the public for 100 years.

Those returns, the individual atoms of official data, have a significance and a meaning that goes far beyond national statistics. They are the intimate records of 8.5m individual households and that passage of a century, the span of three generations, means that a census bridges the gulf between history and memory. I learned this lesson during my visit to the ONS archives. The team involved in the digitisation had, very thoughtfully, laid out for me two pages from two census ledgers. They contained the entries made by two of my great-grandfathers. Listed on one was my grandfather, then a boy of 16, already apprenticed as an engineer, learning the skills that would carry on through a lifetime spent on industrial Tyneside, a life punctuated by war, booms and recessions. My grandmother, a girl of just 10 in 1921, was listed in the other ledger as living in a tiny house with her six siblings, some of whom I vaguely remember as old people, whom I was to meet more than half a century later. Some I never met as they did not survive their childhoods. Infant mortality is one of the many hard truths that rise from the pages of the 1921 census.

Feeling emotions while investigating history is part of my day job, something I can usually (though not always) get through without weeping. That was not the case on this occasion. I have thought about my grandparents, and the north-east they knew as children and teenagers, more deeply than ever, having seen them recorded at the ages of 16 and 10 on the pages of the census. I have thought about what they had been through in the decades before I and their other grandchildren moved from Nigeria in the early 1970s, to live with them in the same Gateshead flat my grandfather was living in when the census form dropped through the letter box in the summer of 1921.

For many families, what will be most poignant about the census of 1921 will not be the names listed in the neat columns on the left-hand side of each return form but the names that are missing from those pages – the boys and young men who appeared in the census of 1911 but who are missing 10 years later, on the other side of the rupture that was the Great War.

Their names can be found on another census of sorts, inscribed on to the hundreds of thousands of Portland stone headstones and memorials to the missing that are today scattered across the former battlefields of France and Belgium, the work of what in the 1920s was known as the Imperial War Graves Commission. That census of the fallen also contains the names of many men who had been fathers to the 730,000 children listed as fatherless in 1921.

While the 1921 census is a record of a moment of unique trauma, it arrives in the public domain at another fraught and disorienting point in British history, making it impossible not to draw comparisons between then and now.

The nation of 1921, like that of 2022, was afflicted by a deep and socially corrosive housing crisis. Looking through their family returns many people will make the same calculation that I made when looking at the conditions in which my grandmother grew up. Divide the number of people in any household by the number of bedrooms and the housing crisis of 1921 becomes clear and manifest. Hardly the “fit country for heroes” promised by wartime leader David Lloyd George.

But our age is horribly redolent of the postwar era in another way. In 1921, the nation had, just two years earlier, been through a third wave of the influenza pandemic that had begun in 1918. That pandemic claimed more lives globally than the war of 1914-18. In Britain, it sent another 228,000 people to their graves.

Beyond what it tells us about housing, class, poverty and changing relations between the genders, what makes the release of the 1921 census especially significant is that for many of us it will be the last we see. In 10 years’ time, the archives will have nothing to say about life in England and Wales of 1931, as the census of that year was destroyed by fire in 1942, a mundane accident rather than an inferno caused by the Blitz. The census for Scotland survived and will be released. The census of spring of 1941, for obvious reasons, never took place. What this means is that after 2022 the next English and Welsh census to be released will be that of 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain and Winston Churchill’s return to Downing Street. Its release is due in January 2052.

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