Census 1921 – 100-year-old secrets revealed

A unique snapshot of life one midsummer night – just over 100 years ago – reveals, among other things, life in the real Downton Abbey, how slum families pleaded for better homes, and why a man from Yorkshire wasn't able to divorce his wife.

Pages from the 1921 Census – made available for the first time – reveal glimpses of some of the lives of the 38 million people living in England and Wales on the evening of 19 June that year. At the time, the country was recovering from the shocks of World War One and the Spanish flu pandemic.

The women-only house share

The future crime writer Dorothy L Sayers was living in central London and working from home in June 1921, when the census was carried out. She was a boarder in the Bloomsbury home of Elinor James, an Irishwoman of 57 who – like her five female tenants – was single.

Image source, AlamyImage caption, Writer Dorothy L Sayers in 1928

Almost all boarding-house keepers were women in 1921, the census shows.

Elinor James's house, in Mecklenburgh Square, had eight rooms – generous compared with many other homes. Her lodgers were aged between 25 and 32 – among the 1.7 million so-called "surplus women" who supposedly found it hard to find a husband. So many men of their age had been killed in World War One.

Many of those young women entered the workplace instead. The census shows more were working in professions. Most were teachers and nurses, but more were training to become lawyers, architects and doctors.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Three female police officers on duty in London, 1921

At Mecklenburgh Square, all five boarders worked.

Dorothy L Sayers had studied modern languages at Oxford and described herself on the form as a translator. Her first detective novel "Whose Body?" would be published two years later, introducing the amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey.

The youngest tenant, Kitty Wood, worked as a solicitor's clerk in Lincoln's Inn. The eldest, Edith – whose surname is hard to make out – was a librarian at the Daily News.

Ursula Murphy, from Dublin, worked as a temporary civil servant in the Foreign Office. Alice Saxty – from Queensland, Australia – described herself, apparently with some pride, as a "craft worker" who made dresses for "Dora McLaren artist". Dora McLaren had designed posters for the London Underground, and in the 1920s illustrated a comic strip for the Daily Herald newspaper.

The 'unfaithful wife'

For the first time, the 1921 Census allowed respondents to identify themselves as being divorced. Just 16,000 people did so.

It would be another 50 years before a marriage could end with neither party at "fault" – and so the shame of getting a divorce, plus the cost of legal proceedings, meant formal separation from a partner was not an option for many.

In 1921, there were many single mothers – but relatively few from divorce. Almost all were as a result of World War One. The number of widows rose sharply – from 642,311 in 1911 to more than 1.6m at the start of the 1920s.

Yorkshireman William Ambler, a Bradford factory worker, wrote on his form that he was married – but hadn't lived with his wife for 20 years. He explained how she had been unfaithful to him and had given birth to a daughter.

Mr Ambler said he could not afford to divorce his wife, although she had successfully applied to the court for maintenance which he had to pay.

"Is it not high time there was [sic] divorce laws to dissolve such unions," he wrote.

"Have I to serve life-long misery, for her infidelity?" he asked.

Edith White, a housekeeper from West Yorkshire, living with her grown-up son and daughter, scrawled "We favour divorce law reform" across her form.

But for others, ending a marriage was just plain wrong. Henry Forrest of Stretford Road in Manchester stated his objection to even asking a divorce question on the census form.

Divorce was a "CURSE to the country" wrote the school teacher – who was 42, unmarried, and living with his five younger sisters and brother.

The real Downton Abbey

On the evening of the census, the Earl of Carnarvon was at home in Highclere Castle – familiar today to millions as the fictional Downton Abbey.

Joining him upstairs was his wife, their 19-year-old daughter Lady Evelyn Herbert, the archaeologist Howard Carter and a female visitor.

Downstairs that evening were four members of staff.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Highclere Castle in Hampshire in 1890 – the filming location for Downton Abbey

Cook Minnie Lynch, 42, was originally from Killarney in Ireland. Ivy Cestell, 20, from County Cork, and Isabelle Fowler Reed, 18, from Aberdeen, were both kitchen maids. Thirty-year-old Louise Villepinte, from France, was a ladies' maid. Only Ivy was married – the others listed themselves as single.

Highclere is a grand stately home with 35 principal bedrooms and – just like in ITV's Downton Abbey – employed many servants. The 1911 census recorded 18 resident staff including 10 maids. So why were there so few in 1921?

The most likely explanation – according to the current Lady Carnarvon – is that it was the London "season" and many aristocrats from large country homes would have been enjoying social events in and around the capital. Some of the staff were probably there too – while others might have been given time off.

Lady Carnarvon says the then Earl, his wife and daughter, could have made a special trip back to Highclere from London to meet Howard Carter. The Earl funded the archaeologist's journeys to Egypt in winter, and In late 1922, they would discover Tutankhamun's tomb.

The doctor from Jamaica

There were 1,712 Jamaican-born people living in England and Wales in 1921 – according to the census.

Dr Harold Moody was one of the most prominent. He had finished at the top of his class studying medicine at King's College London.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Dr Harold Moody, circa 1930

His census return shows him living on King's Road (now King's Grove) in Peckham, south-east London, in a 10-room house. He was then 38 – and his wife, Olive, who'd been born in Henley, was 32. The couple had five young children.

Also living with them was a "general domestic" servant – a 17-year-old girl called Frances Hinds, who had been born in Hampstead.

Moody described himself as a "medical practitioner" working from home. He had set up his own practice in 1913 after struggling to find employment.

In 1931, he established the League of Coloured Peoples to campaign for black rights in the UK.

No homes for heroes

James Bartley was 33 in the summer of 1921. He worked as a gas fitter and lived in Montgomery Street in Hove, Sussex, with his wife May and three children under five.

Two-bedroom houses in that road now sell for about half a million pounds – but 100 years ago, the Bartley family lived in one room.

"Stop talking about your homes for heroes," wrote Mr Bartley at the bottom of his form. "Start building some houses and let them at a rent a working man can afford to pay."

"Homes Fit for Heroes" had been the promise made by Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George, two years before at the end of the Great War. He had pledged to build half a million new homes for returning veterans.

Across the country, most tenants lived in privately-rented housing, often in squalid conditions.

Mr Bartley would most likely have fought in the war himself – but while the National Archives holds medal cards for several James Bartleys, none are from local Sussex Regiments and no dates of birth are listed.

At least Bartley was employed – he worked for the Brighton Gas Company. Two hundred miles away near Liverpool, "master tailor" Robert Stevens – a father of 13 – stated he was "out of work".

Mr Stevens, 44, and his wife Agnes – who according to their form was busy with "Home Duties" – lived with their children in five rooms on Park Street, Wallasey.

Ivy, 21, and Gerty, 19, were both milliners. The eldest boy, 18-year-old Robert, worked at St Paul's Mills in Birkenhead. Florrie,16, and Bella, 14, helped their mother at home. Five younger children were at school, and the youngest three were at home.

Robert Stevens wrote simply: "Can you help us times are hard."

'Ruined by war'

There was no category for disability on the census forms, but some householders chose to note their own conditions anyway – including former soldiers still struggling three years after their return from war.

Image source, Getty ImagesImage caption, Procession remembering those who died in World War One, circa 1921

Harold Samuel Orpen of St Mary's Mansions, in Paddington central London, was nearly 47 and a retired regular Army officer. He lived in six rooms with his wife Joan and a 20-year-old servant, Florence Wiles, originally from Norfolk.

Orpen's form is noticeable for its lack of fountain-pen ink. Instead, he used a typewriter to fill it out and felt obliged to explain: "I lost half my right hand in the late war and cannot write properly."

Other former service personnel added handwritten notes. One simply wrote: "Ruined by War doing odd work" in the section for occupation.

Pretending to love the job

The giant information-gathering task was supposed to have taken place in April 1921 rather than June, but was delayed because of industrial unrest. The original April date on the forms was never changed.

Census staff, 38,000 of them, hand-delivered the papers to eight and a half million households – returning later to collect them. The enumerators, as they were called, told newspapers it was a "wearying job". One complained that children had used the forms to play noughts and crosses.

"You walk from house to house trying to look pleasant and important, and doing your best to make believe you're loving the job, while all the time you feel you would welcome the Earth to open and swallow you up," said another.

Nevertheless, a century on, their determined efforts are being revealed in a unique and valuable resource. It's accessible either for free in person at the National Archives in west London, Manchester Central Library or National Library of Wales – or for a fee through the Findmypast website.

You and Yours on BBC Radio 4 has more stories from the 1921 Census

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