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.


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