How Findmypast is helping us provide access to the 1921 Census

The announcement that the 1921 Census will be available online from next January will undoubtedly cause great excitement among researchers around the world. We spoke to Stephen Rigden, Records Development Manager for our partners at Findmypast, to find out about this huge project to publish the census online.

This blog looks at the census itself and how Findmypast approached the digitisation of it; in our other blog we delve into the details of the essential work that has gone into conserving the census throughout the project – click here to read it.


The 1921 Census of England and Wales will be available to explore online at Findmypast from 6 January 2022. But it won’t magically appear on Findmypast’s website overnight – digitising this precious resource has been three long, hard years in the making.

Imagine the summer of 1921. Before census night on 19 June, enumerators distributed blank census forms to be completed by each household in the country. They then collected them, filled in by householders, the following week.

A blank census form. A wide piece of paper with lots of small text.
A blank census form

As with the 1911 Census, it is these original householder returns from 1921 that have been kept and which survive today. The enumerators checked and processed the schedules, and then passed them on to the registrar of their district who, in turn, packaged them up for the Census Office in London.

The schedules were bound into hardback volumes. Census Office clerical staff went through every census return, annotating them with occupational codes and sometimes making revisions in their distinctive green ink.

A taskforce of nimble-fingered young women, mostly aged between 15 and 17 and known as ‘punchers’, extracted information about each person on each census return on to tabulation punch cards. The dextrous punch card girls also undertook basic first aid on damaged schedules, re-attaching detached sections.

A photograph of a keypunch machine.
A keypunch machine

Comptometer operators then fed the punch cards into sorting and counting machines, which digested them and spat out the raw data that later became the 1921 Census we know today.

And then what? The 1921 Census was closed by law (under the Census Act of 1920) for 100 years. Some parts of it were in fact used internally by the Census Office itself in the late 1920s to prepare for the 1931 Census (sadly now lost following a fire), and limited access was granted to academics on rare occasions.

Other than that, the catalogued and bound census returns sat in government department storage, occasionally moving from one place of storage to another. For a while they were held at Somerset House on the Strand; later, in the basement of Audit House in London; and eventually at Christchurch in Dorset.

Bringing the 1921 Census back to life

The books were placed in archive boxes and transferred to a secure government location for digitisation. There, under the watchful eyes and careful guidance of the Office for National Statistics and The National Archives, Findmypast set about the immense task of bringing the 1921 Census to the public.

Digitisation is the umbrella term we use for imaging and indexing a record set to make it publishable in fully searchable form online. For the 1921 Census, though, there was an additional process which preceded the imaging and indexing – conservation.

Findmypast set up a dedicated studio for the entire process at the Office for National Statistics in Titchfield, Hampshire, and designed a workflow to optimise the available space, making sure to accommodate conservation team members as comfortably as possible, while also making sure the archive materials could be tracked as they moved through the stages of conservation.

A woman stands working at a scanner digitising a census form.
At work in the digitisation studio

They then carried out an audit to make sure that all the boxes they were expecting were in the studio, and that all the volumes were in the right boxes. They needed to ensure that nothing in scope was missing, and nothing out of scope was present.

To give you an idea what this entailed, in just the main record series containing the census schedules, there were a little under 14,000 boxes. Each one of those boxes had to be located on its shelf, barcode-scanned, opened, its contents checked and then re-shelved. 28,162 pieces were found to be present and correct (including one or two which had been thought missing). The specialist team mapped the stacks so they could confidently go straight to the one they wanted.

Once all this was completed, Findmypast’s team could get to work on all things conservation and getting the census ready for you to explore.

Find out all about the meticulous conservation work that went into preparing the census in our other blog.

44 comments

  1. Peter Dixon says:

    How dare you sell the census to a private company. This is a public record paid for by taxpayers.

    1. Sarah Leggett says:

      This eagerly anticipated release is the culmination of almost three years of highly skilled work to digitise the 1921 Census for online publication.

      Conserving, digitising, transcribing and building an experience that enables meaningful, accurate searches of these important records has required significant investment from Findmypast. Every page of the fragile physical documents had to be handled by a trained conservation technician who was responsible for a variety of delicate tasks, including removing any objects that could damage the paper, correcting folds covering the text, teasing apart pages that had become stuck together, restoring tears and checking for and repairing other damage.

      The online search functionality built by the Findmypast team is also better than ever before. The cost of creating digital images from the paper originals, transcribing those records, and building the infrastructure to present the images and data to the general public is beyond our resources. We therefore offer opportunities for private businesses – such as Findmypast – to work with us in widening access to the records we hold, by digitising them and offering online access.

  2. Elaine Everest says:

    Comptometer operators did not feed punch card machines. These are two different professions and two different skills. A comptometer is an early day calculation machine, which meant the operators had to have passed exams and be highly skilled – and know their arithmetic.
    A punchcard operator had to be a skilled typist.
    I was one of the last comptometer operators to be trained way back in 1970/71

  3. Mrs Anne Cleave says:

    One can only say, ‘thank goodness for dedicated, well-trained staff and technology’. The task of preparing the 1921 Census for publication was a mammoth one and every single person involved deserves a huge vote of thanks – mine is top of the list. Thank you to each and everyone of you.

  4. Ms J James says:

    Hi, did any of the Caribbean islands carry out a census day?

  5. Ron Platt says:

    Will those Persons who do not subscribe to Findmypast be excluded from searching, viewing, and downloading copies of the 1921 Census?

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      Just to clarify:

      Anyone will be able to view the Census free of charge in digital format on site at The National Archives upon release on 6 January 2022. You will only be able to view digital copies of the records, i.e. not the originals.

      Searching is free on Findmypast, but viewing will incur a pay-per-view cost (for the reasons they describe in their FAQs). But you don’t need to be a subscriber to Findmypast.

  6. Dr J K Ashford says:

    Accessing the 1921 census via Findmypast will be incredibly expensive. At £3.50 for a register copy and £2.50 for a transcription (which may well be wrong based on my experience of the 1939 Register at FMP) I will probably not be making much use of it – even though I am a FMP member and get a small discount. It looks as if the National Archives have just written FMP a blank cheque. I am particularly galled at the charges seeing as how I have freely spend many weeks and months in the past helping transcribe earlier census and Parish records for the free use of people – including FMP who now sell access to this information.

  7. EIRA HOPKINS says:

    I am really looking forward to the release of this Census as it may clear up some questions that I need answers to.

  8. Sonia Bennett Murray says:

    Thank you for all your hard work in making the 1921 census available! Your mention of finding pieces thought to be missing raises a question. Has the National Archives or Find my Past ever checked the 1891 census of London for missing pieces?

  9. Sarah Leggett says:

    What a let down.
    We all wait for the 1921 census and then the bombshell is dropped that everyone will need to pay to see the most important piece of family search history produced.
    Shame on you Findmypast.
    A shocking way to treat you loyal customers.

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      This eagerly anticipated release is the culmination of almost three years of highly skilled work to digitise the 1921 Census for online publication.

      Conserving, digitising, transcribing and building an experience that enables meaningful, accurate searches of these important records has required significant investment from Findmypast. Every page of the fragile physical documents had to be handled by a trained conservation technician who was responsible for a variety of delicate tasks, including removing any objects that could damage the paper, correcting folds covering the text, teasing apart pages that had become stuck together, restoring tears and checking for and repairing other damage.

      The online search functionality built by the Findmypast team is also better than ever before. The cost of creating digital images from the paper originals, transcribing those records, and building the infrastructure to present the images and data to the general public is beyond our resources.

  10. Raymond A Rouse says:

    At the age of 77 and in somewhat failing health this really is exceelent news and on a very personal ——- and —- pessimistic note.
    ,I thought I would not get the opportunity to find out mmore about our Paternal grandmother and her three children, one being our Father
    To date we have established, through GRO official Birth Certificates, that our Father indeed had two sisters both of whom were unknown to us,either formally or otherwise and certainly never “ hinted “ at by our Father.
    Hopefully, modern technology will forward further exciting trails to follow.
    Kindest regards.
    Raymond A Rouse. ( Nottinghamshire)

  11. David Dukes says:

    What an immense task!! Congratulations to all involved. When I started to work we still had comptometer operators dealing with the wages of thousands of miners. They were all young ladies in one large office and I was very shy when I had to enter their domain!
    I have looked forward to this publication and I must say however that the news of the 1931 census I find particularly distressing, not that I am likely to be around on the publication date. It is my year of birth. But my children, grandchildren or great grandchildren may have taken an interest!

    Best wishes to all and congratulations again.

  12. Trevor Bow says:

    That’s such a tragedy that the I93I census was lost in a fire. Where and when did this happen ? Was there nothing left at all of the records ?

  13. Julia Mitchell says:

    I am afraid I will not be able to afford the cost of looking on findmypast. By the time anyone else has access and looking at the images comes within an annual subscription this public record resource will be beyond my means. Will it be possible to see the images for free at the National Archives?

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      Hi Julia. You will be able to see digital copies of the Census for free on site at The National Archives – but you won’t be able to see the original records. For Findmypast, you won’t need to have a subscription. Searching the records will be free of charge, but there will be a fee for view copies or transcripts, i.e. it’ll be on a pay-per-view basis.

  14. Dave Massey says:

    This is truly extraordinary if it happened, It would be helpful to know what, if anything, survived. At that time there was mass unemployment off the back of the Great Depression. The data in the Census would have been damning.

  15. Graham Appleyard says:

    I am surprised that Find My Past will be charging a fee to look at each of the records on top of the fee to join the site. Up to £3.50 to look at one record.
    As you are the National Archives is it a new policy to charge for looking at records that are housed at the site using an indirect method to do so?
    It seems to me that Find My Past members are going to be subsidising work that the National Archives should have done itself.
    Was there any discussion with any others about the sole use, or was it a shady deal?

  16. Jennifer Foster says:

    I am very distressed to learn there is to be an additional charge to view each record in the 1921 Census. I was so looking forward to learning about the early lives of family members I knew.

    1. Sarah Leggett says:

      This eagerly anticipated release is the culmination of almost three years of highly skilled work to digitise the 1921 Census for online publication.

      Conserving, digitising, transcribing and building an experience that enables meaningful, accurate searches of these important records has required significant investment from Findmypast. Every page of the fragile physical documents had to be handled by a trained conservation technician who was responsible for a variety of delicate tasks, including removing any objects that could damage the paper, correcting folds covering the text, teasing apart pages that had become stuck together, restoring tears and checking for and repairing other damage.

      The online search functionality built by the Findmypast team is also better than ever before. The cost of creating digital images from the paper originals, transcribing those records, and building the infrastructure to present the images and data to the general public is beyond our resources.

  17. Wendy James says:

    The 1911 census was handled the same way, but if one waited a while, it was available as it is today, I expect the same with the 1921 census. I expect we will be able to access the 1921 census with just a subscription in time. I will have patience and wait.

  18. Alan Simpson says:

    All the previous censuses are available on Ancestry. When will the 1921 census also be available there (not just on Find my Past)?

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      Findmypast will be the only genealogy website to offer access to the 1921 Census of England and Wales. We are unable to disclose when other companies may be able to provide access to the census at this time.

      The 1921 Census of England and Wales will be free to view in digital format at The National Archives in Kew.

  19. Mark VanBuren says:

    I understood that anyone will be able to view the digital images of the 1921 Census of England and Wales for free on the premises at The National Archives at Kew upon release on 6 January 2022.

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      That is correct – digital images will be available to view on site at Kew for free.

  20. James Morgan says:

    It’s criminal that Find My Past are charging so much on top of a subscription for data that belongs to the people of the UK. We should be paying for the digitisation via taxes and the data should be free to access.

  21. ANNE GREEN says:

    I am equally horrified that for each record we will be charged a fee. Subscription to the sit should be enough.

  22. Bob Avery says:

    Somewhat like Graham Appleyard, comment The 28th Oct 2021, I was taken aback at the charges per page for the 1921 census for hard copy and digital copy at £3.50 and £2.50 respectively. After worrying about the meltdown that my back account may suffer I woke up to the fact that someone has to pay for the service so why not the customer! A lot of work, a lot of time and effort, all of which has to be paid for and why should folks who have no interest in family history research et al have to subsidise those of us who do. My only concern is, do I have to also subscribe to Find My Past to access the documents or are FMP setting up a separate accessible service where all I get is what I pay for. I am aware that I could visit Kew and read the documents for free but that would be a slight inconvenience travelling from Wales every five minutes just to browse. It seems that FMP have created an excellent service but at what cost to myself is yet to assessed!

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      Just to confirm, you won’t need to be a subscriber to Findmypast to view digital copies of the records. While searching on Findmypast will be free, viewing will be on a pay-per-view basis.

  23. Michael Leslie says:

    Totally agree with Graham Appleyard’s comments. Such important national records ought to be freely available to the public in the same way that we have access to most national museums and art galleries. Hiding such historic national records behind a private paywall is unprincipled.

  24. Michael Hume says:

    What will the money raised by charging the £3.50 for each record be used for? Surely this information held in the 1921 Census records is public information in the true sense of the word, and should be made freely available to the public with any associated costs being borne by findmypast or any other genealogy organisation that may be willing to be involved. We understood that Census information should be freely available after 100 years under the “Freedom of information” Act.

    1. Sarah Leggett says:

      This eagerly anticipated release is the culmination of almost three years of highly skilled work to digitise the 1921 Census for online publication.

      Conserving, digitising, transcribing and building an experience that enables meaningful, accurate searches of these important records has required significant investment from Findmypast. Every page of the fragile physical documents had to be handled by a trained conservation technician who was responsible for a variety of delicate tasks, including removing any objects that could damage the paper, correcting folds covering the text, teasing apart pages that had become stuck together, restoring tears and checking for and repairing other damage.

      The online search functionality built by the Findmypast team is also better than ever before. The cost of creating digital images from the paper originals, transcribing those records, and building the infrastructure to present the images and data to the general public is beyond our resources. We therefore offer opportunities for private businesses – such as Findmypast – to work with us in widening access to the records we hold, by digitising them and offering online access.

      The digitisation of the 1921 Census is the largest project ever completed by The National Archives and Findmypast, consisting of more than 30,000 bound volumes of original documents stored on 1.6 linear kilometres of shelving. Once launched, it will be searchable at a touch of a button from your home.

  25. JM says:

    I also feel agrieved that as a subscriber to FMP I am expected to pay additional extortionate fees to view the 1921 census. FMP say that the census will be freely available at The National Archives – excellent if you happen to be within travelling distance somewhat discriminatory to those people that live in the rest of the UK. I thought this was The National Archives, not the London Archives.

  26. Bill Beer says:

    Previous census returns have been available free of charge to researchers in local libraries and archives. Will there be similar access to this census? It seems that online access through Find My Past could prove prohibitively expensive if searching multiple family names.

    1. Matthew de Ville (Admin) says:

      Initially access will only be via Findmypast and on site at The National Archives in Kew. I’m afraid we’re unable to disclose at the moment when other companies may be able to provide access to the census.

  27. Sarah says:

    whilst I appreciate the complexity of the work involved the charge for copies seems to be out ofproportion and will certainly discourage people from requesting copies or maybe this is NA intention?

  28. Evol Laing says:

    Can we not have a general increase in Subscription Fees as it would cost me so much to have to pay over $3 each time I searched records? Thus using these records would be prohibitive

  29. Adrian Brockett says:

    Has there been an answer to the two previous messages (by Graham Appleyard and Bill Beer)? Will the 1921 census be freely available for researchers at TNA in Kew?

  30. Robert Dixon says:

    The 1911 Census was launched on a dedicated site & I get the impression the 1921 Census will be the same. So you’ll need to pay to see the records but you won’t need a FindMyPast subscription for that. If that’s correct and the same pattern is followed then it will appear on FindMyPast (& other sites) at a much later time. And if my memory is correct, the 1911 Census was launched in bits and pieces over a period of time and based on geographical returns, this to lighten the initial server loading.

  31. Matthew Woollard says:

    The statement that the “The 1921 Census was closed by law (under the Census Act of 1920) for 100 years” is misleading. The 100 years closure provision was made in the Lord Chancellor’s Instrument No. 12 of 20 June 1966 under Public Records Act 1958.

  32. robertpaulson says:

    @ adrian brockett

    Yes, its free at kew to access the digital records.

  33. Kaye Bickerdike says:

    Mysteriously, still no response to the repeated question of cost, despite the National Archive’s ‘open archive’ policy, available to all.

  34. Frances Hoffman says:

    Thrilled beyond words that the 1921 census will become available to researchers. However, living in Canada, as I do, Kew is out of the question. Like many, I also pay a significant annual fee to belong to Findmypast. Regardless, I shall have no option but to pay per view. Exceedingly disappointing!

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