What’s All The Fuss About The 1921 Census?

By Carol Saul

This article was published in the April 2022 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

So how did you feel when you finally accessed the 1921 census?  Maybe it has solved a mystery for you, or maybe, like me, you were distinctly underwhelmed.   I didn’t really expect anything exciting – I just wanted to fill in the timelines of a few immediate forbears like grandparents and, where possible, great grandparents – after all there’s the budget to consider. It is only available by pay as you go; you can either have the image of the page you want for £3.50 or a transcription for £2.50.
There are many reviews and guides to the 1921 census you can look at which describing what is available for our money, so this is only my experience when I looked a couple of days after its release.  [I probably should have read up on it more first, but that’s another story…]
I don’t have a current subscription to FindMyPast but I do have a login so it was easy to access.  Pleasantly surprising was that after inputting a search name it’s possible to hover over the icon for each result and see another couple of names in the household, which of course can give a clue as to whether one has the correct entry before paying.
Purchasing the actual records is simple and they quickly appear in one’s inbox although I didn’t quite figure out how to increase the size of my printouts for easier reading.  A small annoyance (to me) is that addresses are on the second page which I didn’t want to print out [waste of ink!] as that’s the only thing of interest there, so I scribbled them on my printouts.  (Obviously I saved the pages.)
After the thrill of the information on the 1911 census with its questions on the number of years a couple have been married and how many of their children were alive or dead, the 1921 seemed disappointingly sparse. Likewise in comparison with the 1939 Register (see below) where, although relationships are not defined, dates of birth are given.  However, there are potentially two differing but useful pieces of information in 1921. Firstly, not only are occupations included but also the names and addresses of employers.  This was the most interesting information for me in several instances.  From one I could assume that the young widowed brother of my grandfather, although ostensibly living with my grandfather and his family in Coventry, was likely just visiting as he gave his workplace back in the Black Country.  The other possible useful question relates to children when the householder had to say whether one or both parents were alive.  This could mean looking for one of the parents elsewhere if not already on the return rather than assuming that parent had died.
Most of those I searched for were “present and correct” as anticipated although some folk were living with other family members – something I wouldn’t have known.  The sister of my husband’s grandfather (Lizzie May Saul) turned up as a Boarder in Blackpool which was a nice addition to pass on to her descendants and as it gave the name of the company she worked for as a Tailoress, I then found adverts and news items in the British Newspaper Archive.
One point of note, which I’ve not yet followed through on, is that Boarders are included with the household they are living but apparently Lodgers are recorded separately so it could be worth searching on addresses to see if any more people are living there.  Something to do with Boarders having their meals where they live but Lodgers catering for themselves, I believe.
There are, of course, the usual transcription errors.  I was looking for an “Ellen” and she was transcribed as “Ellis”.  My husband’s non-SAUL grandparents didn’t write their full names on the form, only their initials!  Goodness knows why.
There is one person I would like to have found (but haven’t) if only for the kudos of having him in 8 censuses:   he was born in 1844 and died in June 1922.  I rather think he may have gone the way of my late mother-in-law in the 1939 Register – missing!
It would be good to  know if anyone has made a ground-breaking discovery from the 1921, especially relating to any of  the Society’s names.
[Ed: After reading Carol’s article I took a look at my family on the 1921 census, and found all four grandparents, plus a great-great Aunt Saul who I am particularly interested in. OK, there isn’t the extra information that is available on the 1911 census but I did get the usual buzz from finding information from any census, be it the ones from the 19th century or this one. It just gives you a little bit more information about your family to go on the tree.
I’m not doing a lot of active research, and so I didn’t really know anything about the 1939 Register Carol referred to, so took a look.
For those like me who are unware of it, it was a register of all civilians in England and Wales taken on 29th September 1939. It recorded address, name, sex, date of birth, marital status and personal occupation and was used to issue identity cards and ration books. It is available on Ancestry and FindMyPast and is particularly valuable since the 1931 census data were destroyed by fire and no census was taken in war time 1941.
I took a look at my mum’s family. Two things struck me, firstly was that across the entry for my uncle, who would have been aged seven at the time, was a black bar saying ‘This record is officially closed’. Then I was amazed to find that my mother’s name was given correctly for 1939 as Marjorie Whitehouse but that ’Bailey’, her married name from 1954, was written in what looks like green biro beside it. Someone had been there before me…! Does anyone know why this might be? Was this a family historian defacing official documents at a later date or something more official? And why was my seven year old uncle’s information blacked out like a few others on the page? Just over ten years later he had to do National Service, was this the reason?

The Editor’s grandparents who were on the 1939 Register. William Whitehouse’s mother
was Sarah Jane Saul.