1921 Census - The Postcard Census

Place of work

Among the new topics introduced to the Census form in 1921 was that of 'place of work'.  Tabulating the results of this initiative were to prove quite complicated.[1]

Issues around housing and transport lay behind the census instructions to:

"give the address of each person's place of work.  For a person with no regular place of work write 'No fixed place.' If the work is carried on mainly at home, write 'At home'."

Alongside the standard census information as to where people lived, the answers to the place of work question would show the direction and volume of daily travel for work purposes, supporting planning for bus, tram or train travel, and for new housing in places convenient for the working population.  Such information would also support planning for 'continuation schools', which might conveniently be located near people's places of work rather than their homes.[2],[3]

Tabulating the results

Census enumerators' records were sent to registrars of local sub-divisions.  They would automatically know and record the sub-district of residence and, if local, the place of work. However, where people worked away from their local sub-division, the local Registrar would not necessarily be able to allocate an accurate code for the work address.

In such cases, enumerators were instructed to fill up a:

"Transfer Postcard Form in respect of every address given in column (m) in the Schedules collected by him which is situated outside the Registration sub-district of which his Enumeration District forms a part."

These postcards would be collated by the local Registrar, and sent on to the relevant place of work registrars.[4]

Thus, a 'postcard census' was put into operation:

·         where the address was out of the local area, a postcard form was filled in with the place of work address, and the reference number of the Census Schedule on which this address was given

·         the General Post Office delivered the postcards to the Registrar for the area where the work address was located

·         that Registrar, knowing the local boundaries and sub-divisons in their district, would code the address and send the postcards to census headquarters

·         at HQ, the coded postcards were to be sorted back to their districts of origin and linked to the Schedules relevant to them.

This rather unwieldy procedure was to be replicated 30 years later for the 1951 census.  The General Report on the 1921 Census, published  in 1927, summarised this activity as follows:[5]

During the weeks succeeding the date of the census, the local officers subjected the schedules and enumeration books to a careful scrutiny, which frequently involved reference back to the person making the return.

In addition to these duties, "place-of-work" postcards were received by them from other districts, and were coded according to the area of the place of work by stamping on each the appropriate code number furnished by the Census Office. In the larger business centres, e.g., City of London, this particular duty was extremely onerous, although arrangements were made to lighten the burden by transferring some of the actual coding to headquarters. In view of this and of the novelty of the scheme, a tribute is due to the way in which the local officers responded and performed their allotted functions. After the examination of the enumeration books and schedules was completed, they were forwarded to headquarters.

Without a question on 'place of usual residence' (which would be introduced in the 1931 Census), it proved impossible to ensure that 'place of residence' in holiday areas reflected 'usual' residence.  Thus some statistics showing 'place of work' as separate from 'place of residence' included holidaymakers away from home and therefore, perhaps, not usually resident in a place separate from their work.  This was one consquence of the moving of the census date from April to June.

Extensive searches have failed to produce an image of the census postcards.


[1] This piece is based largely on the following article: 'The English Census of 1921' by Edith Abbott.  Journal of Political Economy' Dec. 1922, Vol. 30, No. 6. pp. 827-840.  University of Chicago Press.  Downloaded from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1822472
[2] The Coming Census. Why It Is Taken, How It Is Taken, and How to Fill up the Census Schedule (prepared with the authority of the Registrar-General and containing a copy of the official form of schedule), London, I92I.
[3] 'Continuation schools' provided day education to people aged over the school leaving age of 14, who were in employment.
[4] Instructions to Enumerators, Census 1921; TNA RG 27/9, piece 90, p. xiii.
[5] Census of England and Wales 1921. General Report with Appendices. HMSO London. 1927. pp 6-7.

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