Life in 1921: New census data provides insight into days gone by
From the earliest divorce statistics to the rise in the number of widows and orphans in the aftermath of war and the pandemic, the 1921 census provides a glimpse of life 100 years ago.
According to a new census-based analysis, one in nine women aged 15 and over (11%) were widowed in 1921. However, the increase was greater for certain age groups, according to figures released by the Office for National Statistics. For example, 1.3% of women between the ages of 25 and 34 were widowed in 1911. By 1921, this figure had risen to 3.2% of women in the same age group.
Among men, 5% of people aged 15 and over in 1921 were widowed. The census data only covered current marital status and therefore does not include people who were widowed but had remarried.
Not all widowed spouses would have lost their husband or wife to war or the pandemic, but for comparison, 239,000 widows and 393,000 children received war pensions in 1921 in Britain.
It is estimated that around 228,000 people have died in Britain from the Spanish flu. It is believed that in the UK the virus was spread by soldiers returning from the trenches in northern France during the First World War.
The 1921 census was the first and only time questions about orphan status were asked of children 14 and under. The figures helped prepare the financial framework for the Contributory Pensions for Widows, Orphans and Old Age Act 1925.
There were 730,845 children who had lost their fathers and 261,094 who had lost their mothers. Those who lost both parents numbered 55,245.
In parts of England and Wales, around one in 10 children aged 14 and under had lost their father.
Among urban areas, Finsbury Metropolitan Borough in London had the highest percentage of fatherless children aged 14 and under (10%), while the county borough of Hastings in East Sussex and county borough of Bury in Lancashire each had just under 10%.
The 1921 survey was also the first to include divorce as an option in marital status and showed that 0.06% of people aged 15 and over were divorced in 1921 (16,682 people). The ONS said divorce was still relatively rare in England and Wales in 1921, and often a source of stigma and shame for those involved. It was also largely the preserve of those who could afford it. A series of laws followed in 1921 which put men and women on an equal footing by providing other grounds for divorce other than adultery or violence.
Although there was a slight increase in divorces in the late 1920s, dramatic increases were not seen until the mid to late 1940s. In the 1961 census, 0.8% of people aged 16 and over (of marriageable age) were divorced, and 9% were divorced or in a legally dissolved civil partnership at the 2011 census.
The 1921 census also collected information on how many rooms people had and how many people lived in their house. The urban district of Hebburn in County Durham had the least living space on average, with just 0.59 rooms per person. Districts with the highest number of rooms per person were mostly coastal or rural; The urban district of Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire had the most space, with 1.82 rooms per person.
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