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.
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.
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.
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.