Entering a Catacomb that’s Been Sealed Off for a Century

Here’s the weekly – it comes out every Friday – London Walks podcast. This one is about the 1921 Census Return which, after 100 years under wraps, will be accessible to the public from January 6, 2022. And in particular why it’s so special – “a once in a lifetime opportunity.”


London calling. David here. David here with the regular, Friday, weekly London Walks podcast. This in addition to the daily On this Day in London History podcast that we’ve now got going. Though it’s anybody’s guess whether I’ll be able to maintain that punishing schedule.

Anyway, here’s Friday’s punt – the Weekly London Walks podcast.

I feel like an astronaut. The SLS – NASA’s Space Launch System is on the launch pad. I’m up in the cockpit. Strapped in. Keyed up. The countdown has begun.

Launch date: January 6th. 

January 6th is the twelfth day of Christmas. So, yes, another way of putting this: this year, for me, Christmas morning comes on January 6th. 

I’ve been looking forward to this for ten years. For most of this past decade it was way in the future. But this last year I’ve felt like a prisoner with a release date getting close now, putting an X through each day on the calendar that brings me one day closer to January 6, 2022. 

Ok, that’s enough of a teaser. Except that I want to stress that release is the right word. Because on January 6th 2021 the 1921 Census Return is released. It’s been under lock and key for a century. Nobody’s been able to see it. But the key’s in the door now. On January 6th that key’s going to be turned and that door will swing open. And just like that, we’ll be in. Into a place nobody’s been able to go to. In. Or out, walking free – if you plump for the prison sentence motif. Or lift-off – Houston, we have lift-off – if you’re going for the SLS, the manned spacecraft way of seeing this event.

So what awaits us?

You want it in one sentence, a detailed snapshot of 38 million lives is what awaits us.

For anyone like me who’s got a thing about primary documents – who’s come out of a scholarly background – every census return is better than the last one. Better because each one provides more information. For example, the 1901 return tells us how many rooms were in a dwelling if fewer than five. The 1911 return tells us how many rooms in every instance. It’s invaluable for a guide. We can stand outside a house and I can say, authoritatively, this is a 25-room house. Or, a couple of hundred yards and a world away, there were 15 people living in this seven-room house: two families and three lodgers. How many people lived in a place, how much living space did they have, how old were they, what was their occupation, where were they from – it’s invaluable information, it gets us back there. Gets us into their lives. Gets us into the past. What’s new in the forthcoming 1921 census return: well, for starters, divorce. There’s nothing about divorce in the earlier census returns. But in the 1921 census return people were given “divorced” as an option for marital status. And this time we’ll not just learn about people’s occupation, we’ll also learn about their place of work. It’ll be a simple matter to find out how far a man – or a woman – had to walk to get to work. And just like that we know a lot about their quality of life, what they had in the way of leisure time, get a feel for how grinding life was for a lot of people. 

But I’ve held off until last the two most important things about this census return. It’s literally going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of us. Why is that? Because we won’t be able to see another census return until 1951 return is made available in 2052. Huh? What? Why is that? you say. Well you might ask.

Here’s what’s going on. We won’t be able to see the 1931 census return in 2032 – or anytime – because it was destroyed in a fire. And we won’t be able to see the 1941 census return in 2042 because there was no 1941 census return. It didn’t happen. It was a casualty of World War II. 

So that’s it. 1921 was the last boat. For 30 years.

But what a boat. Think for a minute about the snapshot of those millions of lives recorded in the 1911 census return. Think about their innocence. They had no way of knowing, in 1911, what was just ahead of them, what was bearing down on them. The horror, the utter catastrophe of the Great War. And then the Spanish flu. In the ten years after 1911 the world changed in ways undreamt of that Edwardian day when the Census Return man came calling with his forms. The war, the pandemic, horses disappearing from the streets of London, far fewer servants, women doing men’s jobs, women voting, increasing urbanisation…it’s going to tell a very different picture, the 1921 census return. It’s going to be eye-opening.

Specifically, household by household. But also generally. The statistics are eye-watering. 38 million historical records, 30,000 bound volumes of original documents stored on 1.6 linear kilometres of shelving. 

I can’t wait to start making my way along some of those kilometres. Can’t wait to make some finds. Finds that will, in due course, find their way here and there into some of my walks. 

The National Archives set in motion a while back a Countdown Clock for the Release of the 1921 Census. As I’m typing these words, to close out this podcast, that clock reads: 6 days, 13 hours, 34 minutes and now, 27 seconds. And counting.




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