‘Have I to serve life-long misery for her infidelity?’ 1921 census reveals anger at divorce laws

The newly-released 1921 census, filled out by more than 8.5 million households, has revealed deep public anger at the state of divorce laws in the United Kingdom.

The census returns had room for 10 entries, with many people using the leftover space to express thoughts on the state of the nation.

Unhappiness at the divorce laws was among common complaints. The dissolution of marriages through the civil courts had become legal in 1857, but it was not until the 1921 census that respondents were permitted to list it as their marital status by writing "D" under "Marriage or Orphanhood".

The full census found that only16,000 people claimed to be divorced, but the inclusion of the status as an official answer prompted many to vent differing feelings on the matter.

‘A CURSE on the country’

Divorce was a "CURSE on the country", wrote Henry Forrest, of Stretford Road, Manchester, an unmarried 42-year-old teacher living with his five younger sisters and brother.

William Ambler, a Bradford factory worker, explained in his form that he had not lived with his wife for two decades because she had been unfaithful to him, but a divorce was beyond his financial means. "Is it not high time there was divorce laws to dissolve such unions?" he wrote. "Have I to serve life-long misery for her infidelity?"

Prior to 1857, divorce could only be obtained either by an Act of Parliament or through annulment under canon law. This effectively limited it to the aristocracy and the very wealthy. By 1920 it was more common, but still mostly available to men who could prove adultery by their wives and afford the legal costs.

The inclusion of divorce was a cause of debate even before the census had begun. "People believed that this was going to be the undoing of society because they said if you write about it you might encourage it," said Myko Clelland a genealogist at Find My Past, which has digitised the census.

Divorce was one of several issues to trigger angry responses, with the long shadow of the First World War, the effects of the 1918 flu pandemic, high unemployment, poor housing, inflation and labour unrest also tackled.

The mental scars of the First World War, were poignantly displayed in a small cartoon drawn by Arthur Vince, a civil servant and veteran. The sketch features top-hatted men at a table reading the census, with one proclaiming: "Counting available ‘cannon fodder’/ next war 1936/ from census returns 1921!!!!"

The cartoon drawn by Arthur Vince, a civil servant and veteran

Credit: National Archives/PA

The legacy of the conflict is visible not just in the unhappiness of veterans but also in the grim statistics it throws up, especially in comparison to the 1911 census.

The 1921 cenus recorded 730,000 fatherless children, compared to  261,000 without a mother. It showed the largest gender imbalance in British history, with 1.7 million more women than men and the largest discrepancy falling in the 18-45 age category.

Individual stories paint a picture of the war’s cost. Harold Samuel Orpen, of St Mary’s Mansions in Paddington, central London, was retired at just 46, although evidently with some wealth given that he lived in six rooms with his wife Joan and a servant.

Orpen’s return stands out because it was typed rather than handwritten. He explained his "regret" at not following directions to use ink but said he had "lost half my right hand in the late war and cannot write properly". 

Harold Orpen's return was typewritten because he had 'lost half my right hand in the late war and cannot write properly'

Credit: National Archives/PA Wire

The taking of the census was delayed two months by strikes in the spring of 1921, while at least one census enumerator feared for his safety due to the flu pandemic, explaining on one return how he had stained it in a "slight accident" with carbolic acid while trying to avoid infection in a "pre-historic village".

Subverting the census was one of the only ways in which citizens could get a message to the Government, said Prof David Olusoga, a historian.

"The census became a way in which people attempted, at least, to say something about the conditions that they were being asked to catalogue and not just list them," he said. "In some ways, people are using the census the way many of us use Twitter today.

"I think we see a society which in some ways is sort of caught between escaping from a Victorian world and into a very 20th century, modern world."

One common response was to throw the Government’s words back at them. David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister, had promised veterans of the Great War a country "fit for heroes", and many returns turn that phrase back on him.

James Bartley, a gas fitter who lived in a single room in Hove, Sussex, with his wife and three young children, wrote at the bottom of his form: "Stop talking about your homes for heroes. Start building some houses and let them at a rent a working man can afford to pay."

A former serviceman wrote: "Remember, no pension or out of work donation received. Fought since 1914 + wounded twice. This case is a disgrace to the nation, so-called England."

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