Census 1921: A unique snapshot of Sheffield 101 years ago

The 1921 population census has just been released, giving Sheffielders the chance to look at their past through the eyes of their ancestors.

Friday, 7th January 2022, 11:19 am

The census is an official Government document covering England and Wales and gives a unique snapshot of the country’s life and people, aiming to capture personal details for all households.

After three years of intensive conservation and digitisation and with the help and support of the Office for National Statistics, the census is now available to search and explore online, only at family history website Findmypast.co.uk. It is the first such collaboration between the Government and the firm.

Taken on June 19, 1921 after being delayed by two months due to industrial unrest, the 1921 census saw more than 38,000 enumerators dispatched to every corner of England of Wales to capture the details of more than 38 million people. This included more than 8.5 million households as well as all manner of public and private institutions, ranging from prisons and military bases to public schools and workhouses.

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The details of any census stay secret for 100 years and the release of a new one is always an exciting moment for historians and people researching their family trees alike.

Offering more detail than any previous census ever taken, the 1921 Census of England and Wales not only asked individuals about their age, birthplace, occupation and residence (including the names of other household members and the number of rooms), but also their place of work, employer details, and gave ‘divorced’ as an option for marital status.

Falling between the two world wars, the record paints a disparate picture of England and Wales, from the Royal household to the average working-class citizen, still reeling from the impact of World War One, a major housing crisis, the Spanish flu pandemic, a ravaged economy and industrial turmoil.

“The city was the fifth most populated in England

The unveiling of the King Edward VII School War Memorial in November 1921 by the Bishop of Sheffield. Picture taken from Hear Their Footsteps - King Edward VII School and the old Edwardians in the Great War 1914-1918 by John Cornwell

The publication of these documents will mark the last significant census release for England and Wales in many people’s lifetime as the 1931 census was destroyed in a fire and the 1941 census was never captured due to the Second World War. This means the next census will not be available until 2052.

Records reveal the lives of both the ordinary and extraordinary, documenting everyone from war veterans, widows and orphans, working women and vagrants to prominent individuals such as national treasure Sir Captain Tom Moore, mathematician and Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing, Lord of the Rings author J RR Tolkien, Tale of Peter Rabbit author Beatrix Potter, first female MP Nancy Astor, the Royal Family and many more.

Only two years before the census was taken, Sheffield started building its first council houses, the Labour Party wouldn’t be in power for another five years and the City Hall wouldn’t be built for another 13 years.

The first group of Women of Steel would have finished working in the city’s munitions factories after men returned from fighting in the war. Demobilisation of troops coming back into the labour market also increased unemployment among both men and women.

A gathering of staff at Atkinson's department store on The Moor, Sheffield in 1921

The city was the fifth most populated in England and Sheffield and Birmingham were the best-known cities for metal workers. The number one occupation for men in Egnland and Wales was coal mining and for women it was domestic service.

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The 1921 census for Sheffield comprises records on 505,245 people, which is 1.31 per cent of the total population and the mean age of people interviewed was 28.85 years.

The 1921 Census demonstrates the rapid social and cultural change the country was undergoing, with the changing role of women and the impact of WW1 proving particularly apparent.

This record from the 1921 Census shows The King, George V and his household including Queen Mary and their four children (Prince of Wales, Duke of York, Princess Mary and Prince Henry). The 1921 Census of England and Wales is available online now only on Findmypast and reveals a vivid picture of the population as it was 100 years ago

Owing to the vast number of men who fell in the war, the Census reveals there were 1,096 women for every 1,000 men recorded, with this discrepancy being the biggest for those aged between 20 and 45. This means there were over 1.7 million more women than men in England and Wales, the largest difference ever seen in a census. Also, now that ‘divorce’ was an option for marital status, over 16,000 were recorded but this figure is likely to be much higher due to the stigma surrounding divorce at the time.

“Spanish flu affected the psyche of the population”

There was also a dramatic increase in the number of people recorded in hospitals with a 35% increase from 1911, three quarters of whom were men presumably suffering from wounds received in the war. Thanks to the additional information recorded on the status of parents and children, the census also reveals the devastating impact the war had on families with over 730,000 fatherless children being recorded versus 261,000 without a mother.

As a result of the number of men killed or left permanently disabled, the 1921 census also saw many more women stepping into employment, with an increase in the number of women working as engineers, vets, barristers, architects and solicitors.

Notes of protest and pleas have been discovered among the schedules from struggling individuals, including that of 39-year-old veteran Thomas Mawson who was left “consumptive” after being gassed in France. Mawson left a note on his return describing how he was “going to the sanatorium” as he had “not worked since the war” and was struggling to live on 30 shillings a week.

Just as we are coping with Covid-19 today, the 1921 census also reveals how the Spanish flu affected the psyche of the population, with one record being stained with disinfectant and featuring a comment about how the writer was doing everything he could to avoid catching the illness.

Emily Briffet, a Findmypast conservation technician, holds the 1921 census return for Thomas Moore, better known as Sir Captain Tom, who famously walked 100 laps of his garden during the pandemic and raised £33m for NHS charities. At the time the census was taken Tom was one year old and living in Keighley

From the famous to the infamous, the documents also provide a vivid snapshot of the lives of prominent individuals alive at that time, including cultural icons such as Lord of the Rings writer - JRR Tolkien, Famous Five author Enid Blyton, Peter Rabbit writer Beatrix Potter, Winnie the Pooh author A Milne and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle.

On the night the census was taken Conan Doyle was playing host to a number of mystics and psychics, suggesting he may have been holding a seance at the time.

Details of national treasure Sir Captain Tom Moore, war hero and mathematician Alan Turing, suffragette Millicent Fawcett, Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament Nancy Astor, the first female racing car driver Dorothy Levett and scientist Alexander Fleming, also come to life in the pages of the Census.

Real-life members of the Peaky Blinder gang, including founding member Thomas Mucklow, and other notorious criminals such as serial killers John Haig, the “acid bath murderer”, and Reginald Christie of 10 Rillington Place can also be found within the records.

Due to the fact householders could now specify the names and addresses of their employer, and even the materials they worked with, this was the first census to record many of the iconic brands which are now household names.

This includes Boots, Cadbury’s, Selfridge’s, Schweppes, Sainsbury’s, Rolls Royce, McVities and many more, revealing where and how the workers that helped build them lived.

Tamsin Todd, CEO of Findmypast, said: “This is a day when we as a nation get to reflect on our shared history and personal history, as we read the extraordinary stories captured by the 1921 Census of England & Wales.

“It has been a great honour for Findmypast to work with The National Archives as its selected partner to digitise and transcribe the 1921 Census. I am incredibly proud of our Findmypast team who have worked with passion and dedication to conserve, scan, and transcribe 38 million historical records.”

Pupils at Shiregreen Council School, Sheffield, in 1921
A postcard once owned by collector Tim Hale, of Sheffield, and auctioned off in September 2019, showing the 'Great fire of Heeley', which took place on April 23, 1921. It destroyed everything bar the forges at the at the Skelton and Co Sheaf Bank Works, causing damage put at £100,000
The Mayflower pageant, Sheffield in 1921 - this picture was possibly taken in Attercliffe or Tinsley
This record from the 1921 census shows Harold Orphen, a former captain of the King’s Regiment, who had to type his responses due to the injuries sustained in the First World War, highlighting the devastating effects it had on the population. It reads ‘I regret not being able to fill up this schedule in ink as directed but I lost half my right hand in the late war and cannot write properly’ The 1921 Census of England and Wales is available online now only on website Findmypast
The signatures of famous authors in the 1921 census - A A Milne, H G Wells and J R R Tolkien. The 1921 Census of England and Wales is available online now only on website Findmypast and reveals a vivid picture of the population as it was 100 years ago