Access the 1921 UK Census Now?  30 Arguments For and Against

Access the 1921 UK Census Now? 30 Arguments For and Against


Under the ‘100 year rule’ it is UK Government policy that the 1921 Census remain unavailable to the public until 2022.  There is a growing clamour among family historians for the records to be released early.  People power, in the form of genealogist Guy Etchells , led to the early release of 1911 census information for England and Wales.  In 2006, under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOI), he challenged and overturned a decision by The National Archives (TNA) to block its release before the 100 year rule was up.  As a result, TNA was required to provide a paid address search service from 2007, before a digitised copy of the census went online in 2009 (with personally sensitive information, e.g. health-related information, redacted).  The full, unredacted version will be available as scheduled in 2012.

Unlike the 1911 Census however, the 1921 Census was taken after the enactment of the 1920 Census Act.  The Act, by statutory provision, prohibits the disclosure of the 1921 Census and so is immune to challenge under FOI.  The Government intends to publish the 1921 Census in 2022 when its non-statutory 100 year rule is up (the 100 year rule has been in place for census records since 1962, for disclosure of the 1861 Census).  This hasn’t stopped the lobbying for its early release.


Why the 1921 Census is so important to genealogists.

All census details are important to historians (family and social), but what makes the 1921 Census particularly important is that it records the UK’s first demographic assessment of the terrible human cost of the First World War, in terms of the numbers of young men who had vanished since the previous census and of the impact on the surviving population.  As the Registrar-General noted at the time:

The great events of the decennium thus concluded cannot fail to impress a character of uncommon significance upon the results of this Census, whether regarded as vestigial records of the passage of the War itself or as a source of enlightenment upon the many problems which the War has bequeathed to us. For such enlightenment, at the very time when it is most sorely needed, the country has been unusually at a loss, since there are but few questions today upon which guidance can be sought of the last Census across the great gulf of War which lies between. It is thus with a full sense of the heavy and responsible burden of service which this Census will be called upon to render that the operations now completed have been planned and carried out.

The 1921 Census will contain particularly valuable information for genealogists, as it asked additional questions over and above
previous censuses to develop social policy.  Dates of birth rather than years of age improved the accuracy of the age demographic.  Questions on place of work helped measure commuter patterns, names of employers surveyed local industry and revised occupation details officially defined social classes.  Ages and numbers of children assessed dependency and numbers of orphans, assisting the introduction of the Widows’, Orphans’ and Old Age Pensions Act of 1925.  More detailed questions about education also allowed social policy to develop.  The 1911 question about infirmity, however, was dropped, following the objections of parents giving out this sort information about their children.

Also, as the 1931 Census for England and Wales was destroyed by fire and a UK census was not taken in 1941 because of World War 2, the 1921 Census represents the final snapshot of all UK society for 30 years.  The immense social changes occurring in this period are sufficient to make 1921 seem like a lost world, even in 1951.


Arguments for and against immediate public access to the 1921 Census

Is the government right to prevent immediate public access to the 1921 Census under the 100 year rule?  Here are some arguments for and against early release.


Arguments for early release:

1.         There was no 100 year guarantee given at the time that the 1921 Census was completed; the 100 year rule did not actually come into effect until 1966.

2.         The 1841 and 1851 census records for England and Wales were both released in 1912, therefore the 1921 Census would have been completed with an expectation that the records would be revealed between 60 and 80 years in the future.

3.         The 1911 Census was released early; the government was content to forgo the 100-year rule at that time, why not now?

4.         Early release of the 1921 Census would generate much needed revenue at a time of austerity.  Releases of the 1901 and 1911 census have raised millions for the public coffers.

5.         Most of the information contained in the 1921 Census is already in the public domain in the form of birth, marriage and death certificates, electoral rolls, telephone directories, trade directories, etc.  The Census information would merely consolidate this.

6.         Older people can discover important details about their immediate family, such as missing siblings, ‘before it’s too late’ for them.

7.         The 1921 Census will not cover much more information than the 1911 Census; it is just a record of who was living at a particular address at that time, their ages, occupation and relationship to one another.  If there is any information that can be deemed especially sensitive then it could be redacted as for the 1911 Census.

8.         The sensitivities of releasing personal data is a modern fixation which would not have concerned our ancestors; to close off such basic details from so long ago is being overly sensitive.

9.         We should follow the lead of other countries; the 1940 US census will be published in 2012.

10.       Very few, if any, people still alive now will have been ‘of age’ to actually complete the 1921 Census as the head of household themselves; most would have been mere children at the time.  Many would probably be thrilled to see their childhood details in print, in their parent’s own handwriting.

11.       Whatever is on the 1921 Census will only be of interest to the descendants or relatives of one particular family, rather than society at large.

12.       Many people die without making a will, allowing the government to profit by millions of pounds per year in unclaimed legacies.  Opening the 1921 Census would assist probate researchers (‘heir hunters’) in tracking down the living relatives of those who left estates.

13.       The government has no right to forbid access to the records.  Thousands of pounds of public money is spent each year on archiving records; they should not be hidden away from the general public.

14.       The government is happy to sell current personal data on electoral registers to marketing firms and charities, so to deny access to the 1921 Census is hypocritical.

15.       The absence of the 1931 and 1941 censuses make the 1921 Census all the more important.  Release of this information now will allow people to discover relevant links while older family members are still around to confirm details, ahead of a 30 year gap in census data.


Arguments against early release:


1.         Our ancestors were given an assurance of strict confidentiality when they completed the 1921 Census; we are duty bound to honour that assurance.

2.         Since 1981 the public has been assured that census information will be held in confidence for 100 years; response rates for future census returns may be adversely affected if this pledge is not honoured for the 1921 Census.

3.         The early release of the 1921 Census would send a signal that the government of the day is prepared to betray the trust of earlier generations to privacy and confidentiality; this would have dangerous consequences for other areas of government policy.

4.         The people who completed the 1921 Census are not around to vote on its early release; their right to privacy should outweigh our modern curiosity.

5.         The 1921 Census was not completed with the purpose of making genealogical research easier.  It aimed to provide a detailed and accurate picture of a society recovering from the First World War and to assist with policy making.  We have no moral right to demand the early release of the private information that makes up this wider public picture.

6.         There are many people still alive who are recorded in the 1921 Census; to allow early public access to their family’s personal information is wrong.

7.         Family historians actively chose to uncover sometimes uncomfortable facts about their ancestors.  The revelation of a family secret that an older living person did not know about, or wished to keep to themselves, could cause them huge distress, even it seems fairly tame to our modern sensibilities.

8.         Even if individual information is available elsewhere, the Census does not just give basic individual facts; it paints a very revealing picture about wider communities, social circles, and general living conditions.

9.         The people who completed the 1921 Census could have had no concept of the technology that would eventually expose their lives to public scrutiny.  On what basis should we expect to have their circumstances digitised for our own consumption?

10.       Who would support the activities of modern day hackers – wouldn’t the early release of this information amount to the same thing?  Caring does not always mean sharing.

11.       Our ancestors would probably be greatly offended by an assumption that this information is only being kept closed because they had something to hide; they just didn’t like to ‘air their laundry’ in public, as we seem to enjoy doing today.

12.       We do not ‘own’ our ancestors and have no right to know their intimate details just because we are related to them; we are not their legal next of kin.

13.       Many of those seeking an early release have a vested financial interest in seeing the 1921 Census digitised and online as soon as possible, not just a desire to find out facts about their ancestors.  Family History is big business.

14.       1921 is just too recent for private information to be available to the public.  The clamour for its early release is typical of our modern ‘want it now’ society.  The 1921 Census should be rightly left for a few years more.

15.       Any campaign for the early release of the 1921 Census is bound to fail because the government’s clear position is: “its intention to release the entirety of the 1921 census returns in 2022, in accordance with the non-statutory ‘100 year rule’ which was adopted to reflect this undertaking of confidentiality“.


Both me and Lee love researching our family history, but we’re split on this issue.

Lee can’t see what all the fuss is about; he can’t wait to get his hands on the data and has signed Mike Tomkinson’s e-petition calling for the early release of 1921 Census data by amendment of the 100 year rule.  He thinks that those most interested in the results of his family history research so far have been the oldest members of his family and that the best way to keep the memories of this generation alive is to tell their full story.

I will not be hypocritical and say that if the 1921 Census was online tomorrow, I wouldn’t be poring all over it myself on a point of principle.  However, I do feel protective of the poor old souls who filled in a census form marked Strictly Confidential; I’m just not sure they would like it being available to any old Tom, Dick or Harriet.  After everything this generation endured, don’t we owe them a few more years of peace?  Perhaps I’m being overly sentimental.




  1. United Kingdom I feel I have a right to view the 1921 Census details concerning my parents, at nearly aged 70 if I have to wait until 1921 I may very well be dead by then. I cannot see how any of the information held on this census could, in this day and age, be sensitive, given that more sensitive information is readily available from other source documents. The current rule is an anachronism and does not relate to modern usage under the current freedom of information legislation. The only people alive now on this register would be aged 99 by this christmas, I’m sure, if they are still aware, they would be only too pleased to be able to view this document. So come on change the rules and do so while it’s worthwhile to do.
    JG Oct. 2011

  2. United Kingdom I am researching my family tree, my father died when I was 15 and his mother died giving birth to him, apart from a name and age I have very little to go on especially her siblings which could help me to trace family I have never met. The release of the 1921 census will have no financal benefit for me. Even if the goverment released on a need to know basis rather than a register would be better than nothing. As the 100yr rule did not exist until well after that time the goverment has no legal obligation to withhold information and people who have completed the census after that date if the early release is allowed will bear in mind that in 1921 people did not have that law to protect them as we have now.

    • United Kingdom The 1921 census should not be released until 2022, as per current rules BUT the law should be changed to allow an individual to have access to specific details under controlled circumstances. Application would be made stating reasons for access and these reasons would be considered by a appointed body who would grant access permission or otherwise. There should of course also be an appeals system. Such a procedure would allow for legitimate access without contravening the right of privacy currently guaranteed.

      • Australia I agree with Alva W Lewis. My father was illegitimate, now passed away. I’ve searched for over 30 years trying to find details of his parents, my heritage to no avail. He was sent to Australia under child emigration aged 8 years old. (Lady) Beatrice Headlam authorised his emigration. His name is Albert (Bertie) Powell. The 1921 Census will provide clues, particularly since the Australian and British Governments haven’t been able to provide the answers. Why can’t the Census be available under controlled circumstances to an individual to have access to specific details?

  3. Canada I think British Goverment owes the British people around the world a chance to re-unite with family. Many of my family died fighting for their country! England owes a debt of gratitude to these people who fought on the behalf of Britian. The average participant in WW1 and WW2 would want their family to know what happened to them. And further more would want them to re-unite! Families such as mine have many people dieing of other causes such as cancer and in 2022 we will not have anyone to turn to for clues as it will be to late!
    “Honor the Veterans of WW1 and WW2”
    Release the 1921 Census!!!!!!!

  4. United Kingdom Anyone who filled in the census form in 1921 would have been at least 21 so would now have to be 112 or older, therefore, I’m sure there wouldn’t be many who would complain if it was released now. I know I wouldn’t at that age, I’d just be grateful I was still alive.

  5. United Kingdom For goodness sake. Let us go to our graves knowing as much as we can about our parents and families. I have a lost generation which now need answers so please dont make me be met by complete strangers at the Pearly gates. As for confidentiality aspects the 100 year rule was made to meet totally pre-historic expectations.

  6. United States The absence of the 1921 census puts a terrible blockage in genealogical research. In the States we have just released the 1940 census with absolutely no objections. To be certain it is an exciting 10 year leap forward for those of us in active pursuit of our ancestry. Release the 1921 census!! Let those of us whose ancestors had the courage to come to a new world research and celebrate our English heritage.

  7. Canada i have a huge gap in my family tree. if i had information from the 1921 census, it would help me to fill in the missing gaps, as i have all the names i need. knowing about your past brings healing. if the 1911 census can help you to understand why you are, the way you are. the 1921 census will only add so much more. release it.

  8. United Kingdom I am currently researching my family tree and have hit a snag as one of my 3rd generation grandmothers was a visitor in someone else’s house at the time time of the 1911 census this has resulted in me not knowing her mother and fathers first names making my search almost impossible.

  9. United Kingdom I would love to find out information about my grandads parents while my nan is still alive. And as she is in her early 90’s im concerned I will not have that opportunity. I need information from the 1921 census to confirm hunches from other records I have purchased/uncovered.

    • United Kingdom 1920 Census? Get a grip it was held in 1921. Why are semi literates allowed to vote/comment on this matter?

      • United Kingdom The guy obviously refers to the American 1920 census, why are idiots like you allowed to leave condescending comments like that, you muppet!

  10. Australia I Agree, Please release 1921 census now! What difference would it make to anyone still alive when at the time they would have been only young children and may also be interested in the information available while still living.

  11. United States I have a cousin who’s father was born in 1921 and ended up in a childrens home from birth. She can find nothing about him until he was an adult. She is desperate to get information about his childhood and where he was. We have tried research in Children’s homes but there are too many of them and not always accurate records. The only way she can find out anything about his early life would be contained in the 1921 census. I see no real reason for the 1921 census not to ne released early in fact I can see no real reason why there has to be any time limit at all.

  12. United Kingdom I am desperate for the 1921 to be released as it is the only census where I will be able to track my English great grandfather via his family. Once I can find him on that I can hopefully work backwards but until he marries my great grandmother in 1918 and has both my g uncle and grandfather by in Bristol 1921 I cannot find him and his extremely common name since we know nothing more about him, even his age keeps changing on the 2 marriage cert we can get (from my g-gran and her replacement). That’s what happens when you ditch your kinds in a children’s home after their mother dies and take up with someone else and never have any further contact with them. My grandfathers generation (born 1918 onwards) are all gone and there is no-one left to ask even if they did remember something.

  13. United Kingdom The Government has no right to stop me having access to information about not only my family but everyone who wants to know where their families originate from/

  14. United Kingdom I have relatives in Canada & America. I only have one sibling living in Australia.
    I am 73 years old, and would dearly wish to find any other family whilst i still can.
    Why is this not poss? No financial gain, just a family history interest.
    Please release 1921 census-

  15. United Kingdom i started my family tree after my dad died 2008 i have been with ancestry and find my past since then and just don’t seem to get anywhere, i have done really well on all the sides of my family tree except for my mums mothers side i know her maiden name was annie powell and on her marriage cert she married in 1913 Birkenhead and her dad was Thomas powell a farmer and she was a servant and she was in residence at Falkland road seacombe and she died in 1968. It is just so annoying that i cant finish my family tree i hate to think the hours i have spent on this just to have it sat there incomplete, all i want to do is have a family tree so that the next generation of my family can carry on our ancestry
    Release the 1921 Census!!!!!!!

  16. United Kingdom Discovering our heritage is our Birth Right. It shouldn’t be decided by the Government we should have free access to these records after all our Ancestors created these records. At the least there should be provisions within this ridiculous Law that allows for special circumstances. The 1901 and 1911 census release pay per view must have made a huge sum of money for the Government how about the Government giving something back to the ancestors of those people who filled in those previous census.

  17. New Zealand This 1921 census must be made possible, i have the legal right to tell my nana & her siblings what happened to her two great aunts & their parents, a aging woman should be given the right to know about what happened to her relatives,already in america the 1940 census is available get with the times britain

  18. United Kingdom I agree it should be made available earlier, I have been doing a lot of family research lately and would like to go further forward than I have now, without these details from 1921 it will not be possible and another 7 years to wait is rediculous!

  19. United States USA have 1920,1930 and 1940 census for viewing how come the UK doesn’t, it puts a hold on every person doing their family trees. WW2 are for viewing too, doesn’t make sense.

    • United Kingdom Jane, It is because the British Government assured the people when the census was taken, and this promise was on the form, that the details they gave would be kept secret for 100 years. The thorny issue now is whether to renege on that promise or honour it? All my family from 1921 are dead and beyond consultation.

  20. United Kingdom I would like to see the 1921 Census released so that I can track the whereabouts of my family during that time. My Mother, Father, Grand Parents, etc., have all since passed away and that information has passed with them. I guess as with all rules and regulations, the Government would only amend the law if it suited them, so I am resigned to waiting. I hear that the 1931 census records were destroyed by fire, with no copies available. Hopefully, some copies may turn up somewhere.

  21. United Kingdom I cant wait as a amateur historian for the 1921 census, Surely its an out of date rule & could generate much needed income for the goverment coffers in these hard times, with the 1931 records destroyed & i dont believe one was took in 41 because of WW2, I have said my bit.

  22. United States if they take the damn thing every 10 yrs…one should be released every 10 yrs… simple…point blank… I won’t even fill it out any more..won’t even bother. Because it makes no sense to harbor information that someone could need now..I’m sure someone has already made up whatever they’ve wanted to about me…I refuse to provide information about my family or my children because I feel its their right to release that if they want as long as it remains like this.. and not illegal to comply…I think I’ll just say I live under a rock..or in a cave

  23. United Kingdom I am in my very late 70s and have been trying to find my father’s brother for many many years. After the death of their father in 1911 their mother could not afford to keep her all of her 3 young sons. She kept the youngest child, but my father aged 3 years was sent to live with an aunt in Ireland. William Briggs was the oldest son then age 5 years. My father lost contact with his brother William and to this day his whereabouts have remained a mystery.

    My dearest father died in 1961 and before his death he asked me to try and find William. I have been searching ever since in order to fulfil his wish. My time is now running out and the 1921 census would help me to find him. I keep giving up but know that I must try until I am no longer able to do so.

  24. South Africa As the 1841 and 1851 census were both released in 1912 it is horrendously hypocritical for the 100 year rule (introduced in 1962 as the then Macmillan regime didn’t have money readily available to pay for the microfilming of the 1861 census) to still apply.

    By the way, I can find NOTHING stipulating 100 year privacy in the 1920 census act.

    Only in 1981 was a 100 year rule introduced for census returns from then.

    Above it is correctly pointed out that the US has a 72 year statutory privacy rule, Canada recently allowed for 92 years, while it appears that Australia and New Zealand mostly destroyed their census returns after the purely statistical data was abstracted. Poor them!

    US and Canadian citizens don’t seem to have been corrupted by their more reasonable approach, particularly by the US!

    Release the 1921 census AND the 1939 registration particulars required by WWII. Let’s be in the forefront of change, not one of the most backward nations, sighs.

    Possibly also the 1951 census should be released too shortly, I myself was born in 1950 …

    Sincerely, Neil Frish (now living in South Africa).

  25. New Zealand I too am in my mid 70’s and I think I will get well and truely meeting the people at the pearly gates to get any answers on the 1921 census. Already the fire and water damaged war records for the letter P. which I would dearly love to see. So why can’t they release the census.

  26. - At 75 I am nearing the end of my Family History Searches.
    There is still much to try to verify which would be possible if I had access to the 1921 Census.
    Yes, bring it on. 2021 is still a way off but not that far that it would create a problem.
    I am in favor of an Early Release and would support a petition to the UK Govt to legislate
    its early release. Peter July 2015
    p.s. What a great pity there were no Census Records prior 1841.

  27. United Kingdom I have one side of my family missing. The census would help me fill in the details of which can then be relayed to my elderly relatives….hopefully. With the 1939 National Survey being released in 2015 it seem very odd to withhold the 1921 census until 2022. After all the 1939 list holds mostly the same details. Very weird how this government works. JUST DO IT. Give us the records that belong to us all anyhow.

  28. United States The youngest person included on the 1921 census would be one month old. Today that person would be at least 94. This is a rule that needs to be changed and no longer serves any purpose. Even a fifty year delay would seem an overkill…but hundred years is ridiculous. There isn’t any particularly damning information available on it. Most of us don’t care what is in the census other than regards our own family. As one person noted, the census was not made for genealogical use however that argument could be used for a multitude of things including medications. Neither was it made to add to government coffers. Access should be made available FREE, it is ours and paid for by our taxes. Does anyone know how we can go about changing this law?
    The 1931 census and other important documents were destroyed in the Hayes fire under the scrutiny of paid employees. The 1921 census has already been damaged somewhat by water at Leonard st. The government has hardly been good guardians of it.

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