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Census of England and Wales, 1931

Edward Higgs

The 1931 census, taken on April 26 of that year, was very similar to that held ten years previously. However, there were certain aspects of the enumeration that made it unusual. First, another full census was not taken until 1951, the 1941 census having been aborted because of the Second World War. The census-taking machinery was used instead in 1939 to establish a National Register for the organisation of military recruitment and rationing during the War. The population figures produced by the 1939 registration were seen by the General Register Office (GRO) as the nearest thing to a census likely to be taken in war conditions, and as such they were first circulated for official use and then published in 1944 (General Register Office, National registration. Statistics of population on 29 September 1939... ). But the data produced was in no sense comparable to the usual decennial enumeration.

Secondly, the War also meant that the publication of all the results from the 1931 census was delayed. The General Report was not, in fact, issued until 1950, nearly 20 years after the actual enumeration. As with the impact of the First World War on the 1911 census, this was due to staff shortages and the distraction of the GRO by other duties associated with war-time planning (Higgs, 2004, 209–15). In addition, the manuscript returns for the 1931 were destroyed by fire in 1942 (TNA RG 20/109). This means that there are no original census schedules for the decades between 1921 and 1951, some of the most dramatic in recent British history.

This is a great loss because the 1931 census was taken during the height of the inter-war Depression, and an attempt was made to obtain information on those out of work. According to the Guide to Census Reports produced by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the General Register Office, Edinburgh, the census enquiry was slightly extended to include particular mention of those 'Out of Work', in the personal occupation column (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, 58). In this the census was actually returning to the arrangements in the censuses of 1871 and 1881, when people were asked if they were unemployed or 'out of employ'. Such questions appear to have been dropped in 1891 when the column for employment status was introduced (Higgs, 1996, 111). In the volume on industries published in 1934, an attempt was made to show the numbers unemployed in the various industrial sectors (Census of England and Wales, 1931, Industry tables), and the Unemployment Insurance Statutory Committee made a comparison of the results of the census enquiry in certain industries (Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain 1801–1966, 58).

The only other major innovation was the insertion of a question on the usual place of residence of individuals — either 'here', or the full postal address. This was to see if a de facto, as opposed to a de jure, enumeration gave reliable results, or if the movement of people made it impossible to accurately describe the stable population of an area. This seems, in part, to have reflected concerns that the holding of the 1921 census in the Summer had skewed its results. The returns from this question revealed, as one might have expected, that the places with then largest 'non-resident' populations were seaside towns or holiday resorts (Census of England and Wales, 1931, General report, 4, 187, 191). The headings on the census schedule were, therefore: name and surname; relationship to head of household; usual residence; sex; age; marital condition; birthplace; nationality; occupation and industry (including employment status, and address of employer); and if aged 14 and over, and not following an occupation, whether of private means, undertaking home duties, at school, a law student, etc. (Census of England and Wales, 1931, General report, 193–4).

The publications generated by the 1931 census were similar to those of 1921, although more numerous and issued more slowly. As usual, the first publication was a preliminary report issued in 1931, giving a brief report and tables showing the population of various districts (Preliminary report...). This was then followed over the course of the next nine years by volumes giving returns for counties, or groups of counties and districts. However, unlike 1921, there were now two volumes for each. These volumes, 84 in all, could be published years apart — thus the first volume on the West Riding of Yorkshire and York was issued in 1932, but the second volume did not appear until 1940. Interspersed with these were volumes relating to ecclesiastical districts (1933); industry tables (1934); the classification of occupations (1934); occupation tables (1934); the classification of industries (1934); general tables on population, institutions, ages and marital status, birthplaces and nationality, and the Welsh language (1935); and, finally, housing (1935). The latter looked at housing density, multiple occupation, and contained a section on housing requirements extrapolating forward from 1931 to 1941. Although this was made redundant by the War, it shows a greater emphasis on using the census for forward planning (Census of England and Wales, 1931, Housing report and tables). The General report, as already noted, did not appear until 1950.

REFERENCES

Census of England and Wales, 1931, General report (London: HMSO, 1950). [View this document: General report, 1931]

Census of England and Wales, 1931, Housing report and tables (London: HMSO, 1935). [View this document: Housing report and tables, England and Wales, 1931]

Census of England and Wales, 1931, Industry tables (London: HMSO, 1934). [View this document: Industry tables, England and Wales, 1931]

Census of England and Wales, 1931, Preliminary report including tables of the population (London: HMSO, 1931).

Edward Higgs, A clearer sense of the census: the Victorian census and historical research (London, 1996).

Edward Higgs, Life, death and statistics: civil registration, censuses and the work of the General Register Office, 1837–1952 (Hatfield, 2004).

General Register Office, National registration. Statistics of population on 29 September 1939 by age, sex and marital condition: report and tables (London: HMSO, 1944). [View this document: [MN0349]]

TNA RG 20/109. General Register Office and Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, Establishment and Accounts Division: Correspondence and Papers.

Office of Population Censuses and Surveys and the General Register Office, Edinburgh, Guide to Census Reports, Great Britain 1801–1966 (London, 1977).