…being a very brief history of the releases of the English & Welsh census returns.
We need to understand right from the start that the primary purpose of the census has never been to produce a resource for the benefit of family historians. It may sometimes seem that way, but the aim has always been to gather statistical data about the state of the nation. The fact that, since 1841, the legislation behind the censuses has included instructions to record the names and other details of the individual inhabitants of the country – and that those returns have (largely) survived – is merely our good fortune.
It took a long time for public interest in the census returns to grow. One of the driving forces behind the eventual release of the 1841 and 1851 returns was the introduction of Old Age Pensions in 1908. Realising that those who were born before 1837 might have no legal record of their birth, the Registrar General had allowed limited access to claimants who needed proof of age. But it wasn’t until the recently-formed Society of Genealogists started to exert pressure on the government, that the enumeration books were made openly available in 1912, for a fee (and only to those in possession of a ‘Student’s Ticket’, issued on the recommendation of a ‘person of recognised position’), at the Public Record Office (PRO) in Chancery Lane.
The fees were eventually abolished in 1952 and a project to microfilm the returns (in association with the Church of Latter Day Saints) began in 1956 but the next major event in the story was the release of the 1861 census returns – which didn’t happen until November 1962.
In 1968 a new census reading room was opened in the Land Registry building in Portugal Street, just around the corner from the main PRO building in Chancery Lane and this is where we accessed the census returns (now exclusively on microfilm) until 1991.
The 1871 and 1881 censuses were released to the public in 1972 and 1982 respectively and the microfilms were by now accompanied by street indexes covering the larger towns.
Also from 1972, the Registrar General began to offer limited searches in the 1881, 1891 and 1901 census, through which the ages and places of birth of named individuals at specified addresses would be provided – again, for a fee.
A lot of indexing work, particularly with the 1851 census, had been carried out by local and family history societies over the years but in 1985 a far more ambitious project was launched. With the Church of Latter Day Saints and the Federation of Family History Societies (now the Family History Federation) at the helm, the aim of the project was to produce a comprehensive index to the recently-released 1881 census returns. The project was completed in 1996 and, in many ways, changed the landscape of family history research in this country.
Meanwhile, the 1891 census returns had been released in January 1992, with the PRO moving its census reading rooms back into the main building in Chancery Lane. The returns were released for the first time on microfiche but the primary means of access was still a set of paper finding aids, including the now traditional street indexes for the larger towns and cities.
This was all to change with the release of the 1901 census. The PRO took the ground-breaking decision to release the returns digitally, online and, lacking the financial resources to do the work ‘in house’, entered into a partnership with a commercial company. This, remember, was before the days of Ancestry, Findmypast and the other major commercial genealogical websites and we were very much entering into the unknown as far as projects of this kind were concerned.
I say ‘we’ because, by now, I was working for the PRO at the then recently-opened Family Records Centre (FRC) in Myddleton Street, Clerkenwell. The decision had been made to provide free onsite access to the returns (along with the relevant paper finding aids) at the Public Record Office’s building in Kew (Chancery Lane had closed in 1996) with access to the online system provided (on a pay-per-view basis) on computers at the FRC, as well as (in theory at least!) at home on your own PC, 24 hours a day.
I won’t say too much about the reality of the big launch on 2 January 2002 – let’s just say that it was – eventually! – a success, but that it took about ten months for it all to get up and running smoothly.
The pattern of releasing the decennial censuses in the January after the 100th anniversary of the returns had been well established (since the release of the 1871 census anyway) but now, as the result of a Freedom of Information request in 2006, the government ordered that the 1911 census returns should be released as soon as feasible, ‘with the exception of that considered to be sensitive personal information’.
Accordingly, the partially-redacted returns were made available online from January 2009 on a pay-per-view basis. The project was completed the following year. Access to the 1911 census was free onsite at Kew as well as at seven other institutions around the country: for the first time, there was no physical/microform access to the returns.
Much the same approach was taken with the 1921 census release yesterday. This was the first census return to be taken under the terms of the 1920 Census Act which specified that the records should be closed for 100 years and therefore protected them from any potential challenge under the Freedom of Information Act.
In every case since the release of the 1861 census in 1962, the PRO (now the National Archives) has made the returns available free of charge onsite. This is what they’ve done this time by providing free online access at Kew. And since the release of the 1901 census, we’ve had the additional opportunity to access the returns online from the comfort of our own homes – for a fee.
It would be great if we lived in a world where a benevolent government saw fit to make the returns available online free of charge as a public service – but I suspect that there might be an outcry from people who have no interest in family history (yes, such people exist!) and questions might be asked about where the funding was coming from. So, back in the real world, we have to accept that the National Archives, as custodians of the records, have to get into bed with a commercial partner to allow them to deliver this added value service. And we have to accept that that commercial partner will want to cover and recoup the not-inconsiderable costs involved in making the records – fully indexed and digitised – available to us all.
In the fulness of time, as was the case with the 1901 and 1911 censuses, and with the 1939 National Register (“like a census but not a census” © Audrey Collins), the 1921 census returns will, no doubt, become part of the standard subscription packages on Findmypast and (I haven’t read the contract so I don’t know when this will happen) will almost certainly be made available via Ancestry and other providers.
In the meantime, I don’t personally think that £3.50 is a particularly excessive fee. Most of us probably don’t have more than about ten families to look for and we’d probably be happy to spend £35 on a night out (remember those?). Or, we have the choice of visiting the National Archives at Kew, the Manchester Central Library or the National Library of Wales where we can access the returns for free and download images to our heart’s content! Or we can just wait…
The 1921 census for England and Wales is available online at: https://www.findmypast.co.uk/1921-census
Further reading: Diary of a Genalogist by Anthony J Camp https://anthonyjcamp.com/
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 7 January 2022