1921 Census: Archives in South West London to host exhibition on life in the 20s 'beyond the roar'

  Posted: 06.01.22 at 15:54 by Rory Poulter

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A remarkable insight into life in Britain in the ‘Roaring 20s’ is to be offered by a new exhibition at the National Archives in Kew.

It forms part of a series of events that will shed new light on an era – often misrepresented as a time of boom and plenty – to coincide with the publication of the 1921 census today.

Some politicians have optimistically suggested that Britain is today on the brink or a new ‘roaring 20s’ in an echo of the events of a century ago.

However, the exhibition - ‘The 1920s: Beyond the Roar’ – promises to ‘bust myths and challenge misconceptions’.

It aims to reveal what life was really like for people in the 1920s, which was a period of huge social change, upheaval, defiance, and excitement, sitting between two world wars.

Interestingly, the country then, as now, was trying to recover from a pandemic, the deadly Spanish flu, which saw people, including barbers and typists at their desks, wearing masks to protect themselves against infection.

Classic Ascot Fashion from 1921. Credit: Mirrorpix.

Then, as now, families were dealing with the results of a hostile environment towards immigrants.

Alongside the exhibition, which launches on January 21, will be a programme of events taking in themes as diverse as politics, health, house history, and fashion.

Upcoming highlights include a presentation by the Head of Military Records at the Archives, Will Butler, on Celebrating peace after the First World War.

Author and historian, Catherine Arnold, will talk about the impact of ‘Spanish flu ; and there will be a broadcast of Stranger in a Strange Place, an audio drama telling the moving story of a Liverpool merchant repatriated to Jamaica.

Director of Public Engagement at The National Archives, Emmajane Avery, said: "I look forward to exploring with our visitors the fascinating similarities and differences between the lives of ‘20s people a century apart.

Policewomen engage in discussion, 1921. Credit: Mirrorpix.

"Emerging from the shadow of a global pandemic, we find ourselves today in a time of rapidly developing technology, of global uncertainty, and in the midst of fundamental changes in how we interact with each other and understand ourselves as we adjust to a new world.

"One hundred years ago a generation of individuals was learning to live after the trauma of a world war, recovering from a global pandemic, and embarking on a new era where everyday rights and roles were changing. As we have today, people a century ago had hopes and dreams, grief and joy, experiences and ideas.

"While our exhibition, The 1920s: Beyond the Roar, will offer onsite visitors to The National Archives new insights into a time of change, crisis, and sometimes champagne-fuelled defiance."

Today, the National Archives published full details of the 1921 Census in a partnership with the Findmypast website. Visitors to the Kew headquarters will be able to access all of the details for free.

On Saturday, experts from the Archives, together with Findmypast, will be offering an online introduction to the wonders of the 1921 Census.

The records, released after 100 years locked in the vaults, offer an unprecedented snapshot of the lives of 38 million people, which were captured on June 19 1921.

The census features a number of famous names and their families, including the prime minister David Lloyd George and King George V, as well as one-year-old Thomas Moore, who would find fame a century later as NHS fundraiser Captain Sir Tom.

It also shines a light on the grim reality of post-First World War Britain, amid crippling unemployment and social unrest, a changing jobs market, and a shortage of suitable housing leaving whole families packed into one-bedroom properties.

Historian and broadcaster professor David Olusoga said: "I think it shows a snapshot of a country in absolute trauma, a country in the midst of trying to recover from what was the biggest rupture in its history.

"It captures one of the most dramatic and dangerous moments."

Find out more here.

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