Thursday 20 June 2024
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Nottinghamshire Census: Population, widows and orphans in 1921 

From a lack of living space to an increase in the number of widows and orphans, newly digitised county and district level statistics from the 1921 Census show changes after World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Just three years on from the end of World War I and in the wake of the Spanish flu pandemic, the 1921 Census took a snapshot of life in England and Wales and found a population forever changed.

For the first and only time, information was gathered on orphanhood status, offering insight into the possible effects of war and pandemic.

The 1921 Census was also the first to recognise divorce as a marital condition.

The 1921 Census statistics provide more detailed information for the larger or more populous geographical areas.

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As digitised tables, those relating to orphanhood and marital condition are limited to districts with a population over 50,000.

While the analysis for this data has been carried out at district level, we have provided maps at county level to give better coverage of England and Wales.Explore how areas compared with each other by using our interactive visualisations.

More than 11% of all women in 1921 were widows


The 1921 Census recorded that just over 11% of all females aged 15 and older were widows, compared with 10% of the same in the 1911 Census; a 1% increase.

A larger difference was evident when comparing younger, narrower age groups of females. For example, 1.3% of women aged 25 to 34 years were widowed in 1911. By 1921, that had increased to 3.2% of females in the same age group.

For men in 1921, the proportion was smaller, where 5% of all males aged 15 and above and 0.9% aged 20 to 39 were widowed.


Not all widowed spouses recorded in the census would have lost their husband or wife through war or pandemic, but for comparison, 239,000 widows and 393,000 children received a war pension in 1921 in Britain.

Around 228,000 people were estimated to have died in Britain from Spanish flu a large number of them fit and healthy. It is thought that in the UK, the virus was spread by soldiers returning home from the trenches in northern France during World War I.

Use the interactive to find out how many widows lived in your county

The historic maps of England and Wales show areas as they were named in 1921 and your county may look different to how it does today.

The county-level data shown in this map gives a broader picture of the overall population, not captured in all districts.

Use the interactive to find out how many widows lived in your county.


Census data only gives current marital condition, as such the data here does not include individuals who have been widowed but have since remarried.

Looking more locally, district-level data shows the proportion of widowed spouses. Of urban areas, the highest proportion of widowed females, aged 15 and above, (15%) and aged 20 to 39 (4%) lived in metropolitan borough of Finsbury, London.

Finsbury, metropolitan borough of London was the district with the highest proportion of widowed females, aged 15 and above, (15%) and aged 20 to 39 (4%).

Meanwhile, the district with the lowest proportion of widowed females, was Rhondda urban district in the South Wales valleys, with 9% of women aged 15 and above.

Barrow in Furness county borough had the lowest proportion of widowed females aged 20 to 39 (2%).

First time divorce is included in marital status

For the first time in census history, the 1921 survey included divorce and showed that 0.06% of people aged 15 and over were divorced in 1921 (16,682 people).

Orphans counted in the census for the first and only time

Details of orphanhood and dependency status was vital in a post-pandemic and post-conflict 1921. It helped prepare the financial framework of the Widows, Orphans and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act, 1925.

This would have been the first and only time that questions about orphanhood status were asked about children aged 14 and under in the 1921 Census.

That information, laid bare in black and white on the census form, showed for the first time how many orphans there were in England and Wales.

The two cold words on the census form, “father dead”, meant life without the “head of the family” for 730,845 children, as recorded in the 1921 Census.  Their absence would leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

The number of children recorded as “mother dead” was 261,094, almost three times fewer than those without a father. Those who lost both parents numbered 55,245.

The letters after district place names are part of their description – a county borough (CB), for example, is a distinct area from an urban district (UD) or a metropolitan area (ME).

In some districts, around 10% of the population of children aged 14 and below had lost their father.

Female population of England and Wales outnumbered males in 1921 across all ages

In 1921, the number of females in England and Wales outnumbered males by 19.8 million to 18 million respectively across all ages. This compares with 18.6 million females and 17.4 million males in 1911.

The imbalance between males and females in 1921 was most pronounced among those in their 20s and 30s.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, [government schemes existed to encourage ‘surplus women’ to emigrate to other parts of what was then the British Empire, to try and redress the imbalance].[7]

This imbalance in the number of females to men revealed, in unrounded figures, that in 1921 there was 1.1 female for every 1 male, compared to 1.07 women to every 1 male in 1911.

Population by age and sex, England and Wales 1921


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