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Census 2021: What was life like when Suffolk residents filled out their forms 100 years ago in 1921?




Census day 2021 is just around the corner. But what was life like when Suffolk householders filled in their census forms a century ago?

Great Britain was a torn and troubled place in 1921. Still gripped by the shadow of World War One – then known as the Great War – the country remained in turmoil even though the conflict was over.

The census was postponed for two months from April until June because of industrial unrest, and the Irish war of independence prevented it being carried out in Ireland.

Claydon's cycle repair shop in Haverhill in the early 1920s
Claydon's cycle repair shop in Haverhill in the early 1920s

Poverty and homelessness were on the rise with more than two million people unemployed as the economy plunged into a devastating depression.

In March, the government declared a state of emergency when miners rebelled against wage cuts after coal mines were returned to private ownership, and in April coal rationing was introduced.

Even the weather was cruel. On census day, June 19, the country was in the middle of a terrible drought that had already lasted for more than three months. Some rivers, including the Lark in Bury St Edmunds, dried up.

Cars on Angel Hill, Bury in the 1920s
Cars on Angel Hill, Bury in the 1920s

Then as now, with this month’s census on March 21 taking place during the Covid pandemic, the nation was facing challenging times.

The 1921 survey showed England, Wales and Scotland had a combined population of approaching 43 million, compared to almost 41 million 10 years earlier.

It reflected a slowing of population growth due to around 900,000 deaths in World War One, and more than 200,000 in the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

In many Suffolk towns, like Bury and Sudbury, the number of people was down on 1911, although Ipswich and coastal towns like Lowestoft, Aldeburgh and Felixstowe had continued to grow.

Dedication of Sudbury war memorial in 1921
Dedication of Sudbury war memorial in 1921

It was also a year to remember those killed and injured in the war. Across the country towns and villages were unveiling their war memorials.

In May the British Legion was founded to care for those suffering as a result of war service. In November the first Poppy Appeal was held.

Soldiers back from the war were picking up the threads of their old lives.

Sudbury British Legion was founded in 1921
Sudbury British Legion was founded in 1921

“In some ways, it must have been a comfort to return to loved ones, familiar places and jobs,” said Sandra Easom from Newmarket Local History Society.

“However, former soldiers were still living mentally and physically with the horrors they had experienced. Many families had suffered loss of loved ones.

“It was a lot for any small community to cope with. Families who had lived in the area for generations also felt each others’ losses.”

Bury war memorial 1921
Bury war memorial 1921

Britain’s first census was taken in 1801, when the country was home to only nine million people.

The count was intended to find out how many men were eligible to fight in wars with France. There were also fears that, due to a run of bad harvests, the population could outgrow food supplies leading to disease, famine and unrest.

Since then, a census has been taken every 10 years, with 1841 now thought of as the first modern census. The only gap was during the Second World War.

For 100 years the information was processed by an army of clerks using just pen and paper, until punch cards and mechanical sorting and counting machines were introduced in 1911. Computers were first used in 1961.

The Haverhill St Mary's Wednesday football team 1921
The Haverhill St Mary's Wednesday football team 1921

In 1921 questions asked for each person included name, age, sex, relationship to head of household, and if aged 15 or over whether single, married or divorced … the age at which you could marry was not raised to 16 until 1929.

Others covered birthplace, nationality, number of children, whether a child’s parents were alive, schooling, trade, employer and place of work.

Bury St Edmunds historian Martyn Taylor said: “The census of a century ago in Bury confirmed the tragic depletion of the population through the consequences of World War One and the Spanish Flu pandemic, as numbers fell from 16,785 recorded in 1911 to 15,937.

“Bury and its environs were still reliant on agriculture, but 1921 saw a terrible drought, so bad that the River Lark by Eastgate Bridge dried up.

“The influx of cheaper foodstuffs from the USA affected the prices farmers could get for their products and this situation continued until the outbreak of World War Two.”

Bury's first female councillor Eva Wollaston Greene who later became mayor
Bury's first female councillor Eva Wollaston Greene who later became mayor

But not all was doom and gloom in Bury. The town elected its first woman councillor, Eva Wollaston Greene. She would later become its first woman mayor in 1927.

In 1921 most of life’s needs could be met with a trip to the High Street where businesses ranged from blacksmiths, to milliners, to fitters of artificial teeth – one of whom, in Haverhill, was aptly named Harold Payne.

Class distinction was still very much in evidence. If a well-to-do customer stopped their pony and trap - or in rare cases motor car - outside a shop the proprietor would rush out to attend to them.

Haverhill Clark's fishmongers early 1920s
Haverhill Clark's fishmongers early 1920s

Trades listed in burial records reveal many not found today such as railway horseman ... in those days horses pulled trucks in sidings.

Billiard marker - a person who moved the score marker, replaced potted balls, and called out the score in billiards games, also appeared. So did compounder of medicines, someone who mixed remedies to fit the needs of individual patients.

Other jobs included harness maker, leather merchant, basket maker, tally clerk, butler, valet, horse dentist, thatcher, upholsterer and milliner, whitesmith, and tinsmith.

Bury St John's Street circa 1921
Bury St John's Street circa 1921

But among Suffolk’s general working population times were tough, as shown by a Sudbury Board of Guardians report.

It says: “In view of the vast amount of unemployment existing in the county of Suffolk today, which is rapidly on the increase, it is most important that some relaxation of the wages required by the wages board be immediately considered.”

The report adds many men would work for 36 to 40 shillings a week, but employers were not allowed to employ them at that rate, so they finished up on parish relief.

Motorcyclist at The Croft, Sudbury, early 1920s
Motorcyclist at The Croft, Sudbury, early 1920s

Vagrancy was on the rise in the whole county. More than twice as many so-called ‘tramps’ – mostly older men – were seeking beds for the night in the area’s workhouses than in 1920.

One official said he had to find accommodation on one day for 24 men, whereas they only had room for eight. Men were lying on the floor with rugs to cover them.

The chairman had little sympathy, commenting: “If they were not too comfortable, perhaps they would not come quite so often.”

In East Anglia and around the country, 1921 saw extreme right wing groups begin to emerge.

Basil Abbott, manager of Diss Museum, said: “Europe was still riven by strikes, riots, mutinies, revolutionary movements, flu and unemployment, while the war could easily have broken out again.

“The ground beneath the feet of the English middle class must have seemed alarmingly unstable.

“In 1921 the Diss branch of the Middle Classes Union first met. The following year Diss Urban District Council had seven nominees from the National Citizens’ Union, as the MCU had been renamed.

“What began as opposition to Socialism and strikes grew into policies of eugenics and sterilisation. Leading NCU figures were members of the British Fascists. But NCU influence in Diss seems to have died out by the end of the decade.”

Social housing began to appear after the government promised returning servicemen homes fit for heroes, but stalled temporarily when subsidies were withdrawn. However Haverhill Urban District Council managed to build its first 10 council houses in 1921.

The countryside looked different from today with smaller fields and much more livestock.

One of Suffolk's first combine harvesters working at Elmsett in 1936
One of Suffolk's first combine harvesters working at Elmsett in 1936

Before the age of mechanisation thousands of workers were needed on Suffolk’s farms. They appear in the 1921 census as Ag Labs - short for agricultural labourers.

Historian Ashley Cooper, who has spent decades researching local rural history and interviewed people who experienced farming in the 1920s, believes that description goes no way towards describing their skill.

“Craftsmanship - and pride in their work - underpinned the farm worker’s ethos,” he says. “Many people will have horsemen, shepherds or stockmen in their ancestry, referred to in the census records as Ag Labs.

Ploughing with horses
Ploughing with horses

“The title is a gross misnomer. The horseman, who walked eleven miles as he ploughed his acre a day, possessed almost magical abilities as he controlled his horses and ploughed an impeccably straight furrow.

“So too did his colleagues as they skilfully worked the land, tended the animals and brought the harvest home a hundred years ago.”

Almost all farm implements were pulled by horses.

“Farming was still essentially, but not completely, organic, using rotations with more crops than today,” said Ashley. “The number of working horses in Suffolk amounted to thousands. Five were needed for every hundred acres of land. A quarter of a farm’s land was needed to feed them.

“Numerous people remembered how harvest involved weeks of hard manual labour ... scything around the outside of the fields, putting the sheaves from the binder into ‘shocks’ or stooks, pitching the sheaves onto wagons, and bringing them back to the farmyard to be built into stacks.”

Changes in government policy in 1921 including cheap food imports would soon cause an agricultural slump which lasted decades.

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