The 1931 Census

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The 1931 Census

The 1931 census was taken on the night of Sunday/Monday 26/27th April 1931. The questions asked were similar to those in 1921 with the addition of a question about everyone's usual place of residence, as opposed to where they actually were on that night. There was a plan at the time that the census would now be taken every 5 years and therefore the questions asked should not be too onerous. However in the end this plan for a higher frequency was dropped - cost was cited as the reason.

The 1931 Census only covered Great Britain, that is England, Scotland and Wales. A census in Northern Ireland had been taken in April 1926 so no census was taken there in 1931.

The preliminary report on the census was published in July 1931 and reported the population of England and Wales as 39.9 million, an increase of just over 2 million since 1921.

(Not) Accessing the 1931 Census

In theory the 1931 census for England & Wales would have been available for public access in 2032 or perhaps earlier if rules were to be changed. However that is not to be.

On the night of Saturday 19 December 1942, there was a fire at a store in Hayes, Middlesex. The store, the responsibility of the Office of Works, contained a large amount of furniture but in addition it contained the census records for England & Wales for 1931, that is the whole of the schedules, enumeration books and plans. They were all completely destroyed.

(Note that the census for Scotland was not affected by this fire since it was stored separately in Edinburgh and therefore we can hope that the 1931 Census for Scotland will be transcribed and be made available to the public, January 2032 at the earliest).

The fire was not caused by enemy action and the civil servant from the General Register Office who visited the site a few days later was bemused as to how a fire "achieved such dimensions in a store in which special hydrants had been fitted and was said to have been in charge of a fire guard of 6 paid firewatchers" and that it is "a mystery which will need investigation".

He reported that he and his colleague "are both satisfied that it would be useless to attempt any sort of salvage operation; we are leaving the Office of Works to clear and dispose of the debris in any way they think desirable".

The file on this at the National Archives shows that the General Register Office continued to try and find out what caused the fire - the final word on this seemed to be in March the following year when it was reported that "the fierceness of the fire obliterated all traces of its cause and the only clue is a suggestion in the police report that it may have been due to a lighted cigarette thrown down by one of the fire watchers. There is not sufficient evidence to justify any action".

In the aftermath of the fire, the main concern was for information that had been lost that would be needed for planning the next census, such as the details of the enumeration districts. There was also some concern that occasional reference was made to the schedules for pension searches but there was a feeling that little use had been made of the 1911 census for this and that "as time goes on the greater probability of successful traces in the ordinary birth and marriage records will largely obviate the use of census records". There was no mention in the files, and probably no inkling of, how the census schedules would be used 60 years later.

Intriguingly, the file at the National Archives includes a report from June 1950 when a Mr Brindley was sent down to Hayes to investigate whether any records had been saved from the fire and kept somewhere in one of the several government buildings nearby. Quite what prompted this check is unclear but the conclusion was that nothing survived - following initial inspections in the days after the fire, all the debris was disposed of by an outside contractor.

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