a picture of professor deborah sugg ryan standing in a vintage kitchen

The release of the 1921 Census has helped Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan delve further into home ownership in interwar Britain

In my book Ideal homes: Uncovering the history and design of the interwar home you will meet four families who were the first occupants of newly built, modest interwar houses.

I chose these examples to be indicative of typical examples of interwar homeowners, with particular attention paid to their social mobility and aspirations, and women’s experiences. For each of them, doing a family tree proved invaluable, using the tools and records available from a digital genealogy provider.

The release of The 1921 Census of England and Wales on 6 January 1922 by the National Archives with family history website Findmypast gives me the opportunity to delve further into the lives of the first-time interwar homeowners that I discuss in my book. Census records are very useful for finding out about the history of residents of houses. It is possible to search by address as well as by people’s names. At the time I wrote the first edition of my book, the most recent census available was 1911. I found it an invaluable resource for tracing the family histories of my four case studies. It allowed me to pin down their class backgrounds by looking at their parents’ occupations and addresses to help me tell the story of their social mobility and aspirations.

The newly released 1921 Census was taken on the 19 June 1921 at a time when the population for England and Wales was over 37 million. It gives greater detail than any previous census. In addition to the questions asked in the 1911 Census, the 1921 Census includes more information about occupations. Each occupation coded and a job description can be accessed in A dictionary of occupational terms based on the classification of occupations used in the census of population, 1921 (HMSO, 1927). The census also includes the employer’s name and address. For those over the age of fifteen, information about marital status, including if divorced was given. For those under fifteen, the census recorded whether both parents were alive or if either or both parents had died. It also had detailed questions on education including whether individuals were in full-time or part-time education. Crucially for house history, the 1921 Census lists separate households at the same address and lists the number of rooms they occupied. This detail reveals the working-classes living in overcrowded conditions in contrast to the middle classes who were more likely to have enough space to allocate different functions to rooms.

The census taken in 1931 was destroyed during the Second World War and no census was carried out in 1941 due to the on-going conflict. This means that there will not be another release until the 1951 census in 2052. However, the 1939 Register (of England and Wales) taken at the outbreak of the Second World War was released in 2015 and I wrote about it in the new introduction to the second edition of my book. The 1921 Census fills the gaps between what I know about my case studies between 1911 and 1939 and I’m going to revisit one of them here.

In chapter one, I introduce working-class first-time homeowners Vernon Victor Collett (age 34), his wife Cecilia (nee Wells, 37) and their sons Basil (13) and Roy (10) in 1934. The Colletts purchased a new small semi-detached house with a parlour, kitchen-living room, two bedrooms, a box room, and a downstairs bathroom in Lower Wolvercote, a village on the edge of north Oxford. This was enabled by Vernon’s wage from the nearby Oxford University Press paper mill as a warehouseman. He died in 1960 and the widowed Cecilia never remarried, remaining in the house until her death in 1995, aged 98. I became the second owner of the house with my husband. It was an extraordinary time capsule, with most of its original décor and furnishings, and very few alterations to it except a small kitchen extension.

picture of a house built in the 1920s featuring a verdant front garden

© James R. Ryan

The 1921 Census shows Vernon (21), having moved within Lower Wolvercote to a semi-detached house comprising two reception rooms and three bedrooms at 16 Elmthorpe Road. He’s living with his parents and three of his four siblings (aged 13 and 10). His father Percy (43) has had a big change from the 1911 Census when he was working as a dairyman. He’s now working as a warehouseman for Oxford University Press and although the address is given as their headquarters in the centre of Oxford, I wonder if like his son in the 1930s, he was working in their Wolvercote papermill. Vernon is working as a ‘moulder’ at the Lucy and Co Iron founders in Oxford. This was within walking distance of the house on the Port Meadow side of the Oxford canal. Maps reveal that Rosamund Road was built in parallel to Elmthorpe Road, so Victor may have wished to buy a house there in 1934 to be near his family as well as his workplace. Subsequent electoral registers show that his parents remained in Elmthorpe Road but moved address.

In 1921, Vernon’s future wife Cecilia Wells (23) is living in a small, terraced house at 16 Canal Street, Jericho in Oxford, with her widowed mother Sarah (63), twin sister Mary and a labourer (32) and his wife (29). There are five adults living in five rooms, which probably consisted of two reception rooms, two bedrooms and an attic room. I think it’s likely that the sisters shared a bedroom so that the household could have a kitchen living room and a parlour.

© National Archives

Sarah, like in 1911, is working as a charwoman. Mary is working as a book folder at Oxford University Press, a step up from her previous work as a servant. This illustrates the 1920s ‘servant problem’, the shift of women from domestic service, which they found isolated with often poor conditions and very hard work, into other occupations. This was sometimes prompted by their experience of better working conditions and the companionship of workmates in the Second World War, which made them vow not to return to a life of service.

The middle classes, who were suffering the impact of post-war inflation, complained of a ‘servant problem’ meaning that good staff were scarcer and more expensive to employ. However, in 1921 domestic service was still the biggest occupation for women so it’s no surprise to find Cecilia working as a servant. This is for Ellen Laura Blake (69), unmarried daughter of a deceased wine merchant living on her own means in Beechcroft Road, Oxford. With eight rooms, the house’s semi-detached grandeur is in stark contrast to the cramped terrace that Cecilia shared with four other adults. It’s notable that Cecilia is not living-in, reflecting the interwar shift to servants being employed daily. This makes me think about what it must mean to Cecilia when she and Victor purchase the small semi in Rosamund Road thirteen years later. It is a home of her own, not shared with another family, in which she can be a housewife doing domestic work for herself rather than an employer. The couple can decorate and furnish the house as they choose, within their means.

a sitting room featuring vintage furniture

©James R. Ryan

In the absence of letters and diaries it can be difficult to capture the experience of ordinary voices and the experience of home in the 1920s. However, the 1921 Census gives us a real opportunity to shed further light on our ancestors’ living conditions to understand their everyday lives.

Deborah Sugg Ryan is Professor of Design History and Theory and Associate Dean (Research) in the Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of Portsmouth. Her television and radio credits include series consultant and onscreen expert for all four series of BBC Two’s A House Through Time. Deborah co-hosts Twitter’s #HouseHistoryHour every Thursday at 7pm.

This article is republished with permission from Manchester University PressRead the original article.