When the national census for England and Wales was taken in 1921, domestic servant was still the top job for the newly enfranchised women of Britain. For men, returning from the first world war, coal mining was the main profession.
A century later, this survey of more than 38m people was finally published online this week, marking the end of a three-year project by the National Archives and its partner Findmypast, a division of media company DC Thomson.
The 1921 census asked people not just about their age, occupation and residence, but also, for the first time, for details of their employment at companies such as Boots, Cadbury’s, Selfridges, Schweppes and Rolls-Royce.
Also for the first time, “divorced” was an option for marital status. Around 16,000 registered themselves as such despite the stigma attached at the time.
The census is seen as a very important societal snapshot of an interwar period of economic and social turmoil, particularly because the 1931 census was lost in a fire and no census was taken during the second world war.
For Findmypast chief executive Tamsin Todd, the project is also the next step in developing the already popular market for genealogy in the UK.
Findmypast was one of the fastest growing operations last year for the Scottish media group that is perhaps best known for the Beano comic, as people used time that they had at home during the pandemic to research family histories.
Todd expects the publication of the census will fuel this interest, citing a surge in traffic this week to the website that hosts the database not just from the UK, but from people in the US and Australia keen to trace their families.
Todd, who joined Findmypast in 2017, said that the past four years had been spent developing technology and algorithms to turn “the dry, dusty facts of genealogy into stories that people can tell and share and that can inform their lives”.
Censuses are published online only after 100 years. In this case, it was the biggest project ever completed by the National Archives, with the 38m records digitally uploaded from 30,000 volumes of original documents. Hundreds of conservators, technicians and transcribers worked to compile the database.
Online genealogy sites are already popular in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Blackstone bought US-based Ancestry.com, a year ago for close to $5bn.
Findmypast is the second biggest division for DC Thomson, and generated more money last year than advertising revenues from titles such as Stylist and Puzzler.
According to accounts filed over Christmas, sales rose almost a fifth at Findmypast to £22.2m for the financial year to March 31, 2021. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation more than doubled to £6.8m, compared to £2.7m the previous year.
Findmypast, which has more than 13m registered users, offers a subscription service that allows users to research their families and homes. However, it has changed this model for the 1921 census: users need to pay for individual records, which has caused anger among some historians who argue a single, searchable subscription would be fairer.
Todd defended the pricing model, saying that Findmypast had “invested millions to bring the census online” and needed to recoup this money. The fees are shared with the National Archives, she added, which had awarded the work to Findmypast after a competitive tender.
Findmypast operates as a standalone business, despite being wholly owned by DC Thomson. Todd said that she would not speculate about the future of the business as a separate group, saying that the Thomson family were “really positive, interested owners”.
She added that its owners were also investing in technology to improve its services. It hired 30 employees to its engineering team last year, and plans to expand this team by close to a third this year.
New products could include combining a newspaper articles archive that dates back to the 1700s with family history data to create a better “picture of the past” for users, she said.
“We feel that genealogy can be a far richer experience” she said. “It can be quite dry figures — birth, marriage, death dates — and we believe that there is an opportunity to help people see the streets that their grandfather walked down, the place where their great-grandfather worked, and what was going on in the world.”