Were the 1920s really 'Roaring'?

By Guest, 26 February 2020 - 2:33pm

100 years on, Helen Antrobus looks at what the 1920s were really like for our ancestors - and how family historians can trace their lives

1920s flappers family history
Revellers ride in an Austin Seven convertible in 1922 (Credit: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

The 1920s must have been the most exciting time in our country’s history.

One war was over – another would soon begin to loom on the horizon. The hearts of the nation were beginning to heal, after experiencing an overwhelming loss of life. Women and the working classes were slowly gaining more social freedoms – and as the fusty Victorian and Edwardian eras were cast off into the ether, people grew bolder. Their free time and social time were looser, louder and more decadent than ever.

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It’s no wonder that there is an eagerness to be back in the Roaring Twenties, but while for many it was a time of success and liberation, records and archive materials often paint a different picture. Did our ancestors experience the best that the decade had to offer, or was it simply just another 10 years of work and family life? What parts did they have to play?

We’re set to find out. The next decade will see a surge of centenaries and significant national moments, starting with the release of the 1921 census and ending, more tragically, with the 100th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, which saw the beginning of the economically fragile and politically tense 1930s. There will be much to celebrate too. The BBC, an icon of British culture, was founded in 1922, while the general election of 1929 was nicknamed ‘the Flapper Election’, because all women over the age of 21 finally enjoyed the same voting rights as men.

The prospect of placing our ancestors at the heart of these historic events is certainly thrilling, and over the coming months and years newly released records promise to provide the most candid snapshots of the decade yet. The 1921 census may blow holes in some of our more glamorous imaginings, as it will share for the first time in a unique amount of detail just how our forebears were living in this transformative decade. The England and Wales census records will at last be released in January 2022 by Findmypast, and the Scottish census on the site ScotlandsPeople.


First things first

While we wait with bated breath, there's already a wealth of material to uncover about this important decade, just waiting to be explored. So where to begin?

The 1921 census includes, for the first time, information on marriages ending in divorce – the phenomenon had increased over the years, and the social stigma was beginning to fade. Over 16,000 people were listed as being divorced (the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act aimed to give equal rights to men and women during the divorce process). However, many divorce records are already available, with no need to wait for the census.

England and Wales divorce records from 1858 up to 1937 can be found at The National Archives (TNA), and on Ancestry (up to 1918), while National Records of Scotland holds information on Scottish divorce records. Exciting or dramatic cases may have been covered in local and national newspapers.

The end of the First World War meant a stark change for the employment status of many of our ancestors. We’ll see these changes on the 1921 census, when it became mandatory to list your trade, employer and place of work. Previously on the 1911 census, “personal occupation” and “industry or service” were recorded, but for the most part a vague answer was given. For example, in the census returns for Salford (then classed as Lancashire) such terms as “spinner” and “cotton mill worker” are very common. But on the 1921 census returns we’ll be able to learn who actually employed our ancestors, and gain a richer understanding of the conditions under which they worked: who they worked alongside, and what their day-to-day role would have meant. This new information might even reveal their route between home and work, and whether they’re likely to have walked there with a colleague who was also one of their neighbours.

Newly opened hospital and asylum records will provide a darker side to this story, given the long-term physical and mental conditions that affected many returning servicemen. Injuries and disabilities had an enormous impact on employment figures throughout the 1920s, and despite the acceleration in technology, there were few adaptations that would allow newly disabled men to return to their old jobs. Wage books and company records, however, reveal a different story for women, many of whom rang in the decade with a fresh status of employment.

Hospital records can usually be found in local record offices – track them down with TNA’s online tool Discovery.

Unemployment 1920s
Unemployed workers protest in Deptford, 1921 (Credit: Central Press/Getty)

Social change and discontent


Discontent over high levels of unemployment came to a head in May 1926 when over a million workers went on strike in support of miners who were expected to work longer hours for reduced wages after a two-day lockout.

Other trade unions joined the ‘General Strike’ which lasted nine days. The Government deployed the armed forces and recruited thousands of additional special constables to quash any violence and control the pickets.

It may be difficult to find out if your ancestors were involved in the strike – on either side of the picket lines – although Trades Union Congress records at the Modern Records Centre do hold some material pertaining to strikers, and try searching TNA’s Discovery for the phrase “General Strike” and the relevant county to find what survives in regional archives.

Local newspapers once again are crucial here, since they often listed strikers, victims of any violence and the special constables, who were rewarded for the roles they played. It was one of the first strikes fully involving women, too, who played a voluntary role on both sides of the conflict and were more likely to feature in the local press.

Things truly changed for women in the 1920s. When the Representation of the People Act passed in 1918, some women were able to vote for the first time after decades of campaigning, as we can see from the records of the general election that was held in December the same year. Before the next general election in October 1924, there were nine female MPs in the House of Commons, with the number gradually rising towards the end of the decade.

As women’s voices were now being heard more prominently in Parliament, laws began to change in their favour, and MPs such as Nancy Astor and Ellen Wilkinson began to speak in favour of unemployed women, widowers without pensions, and the Women’s Police Service. The electoral rolls of 1924 and 1929 will prove most revealing in exploring the lives of young women who were voting for the very first time.

The dramatic improvement in women’s fortunes was helped along by the implementation of the 1919 Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act. For the first time, women were able to take on employment in roles that had previously kept their doors closed – and while the 1921 census shows the first waves of this change, by the end of the decade women were growing more prominent in these new jobs.

Also, by the end of the 1920s more electrical appliances were freeing women from the shackles of housework and traditional domesticity. Many women expressed this new-found sense of liberation with the latest shingled (or bob) hairstyle; when Ellen Wilkinson, the MP for Middlesbrough, cut off her long red hair in favour of the new style, it made the headlines. Young women in the 1920s would have been swept up in these modern trends, the beginning of lives challenging traditional images of how women should look, act and dress – a marked difference from the situation in 1911.

Indeed, the British Newspaper Archive is an all-important resource for researching the decade, because the combination of photography, new technologies, increased travel and social freedoms meant that headlines such as Ellen’s were becoming more frequent. Family announcements and local news were growing in popularity, and sometimes included images.

Unfortunately, family historians who are eagerly awaiting the release of the 1921 census may well be disappointed if they need help with their Irish brick walls. Given the rise of the Irish Free State and the consequent War of Independence between 1919 and 1921, there was no census taken in Ireland in 1921. However, martial-law and Easter Rising records are available on Ancestry, Findmypast and the website of the National Archives of Ireland, so you can find out if your ancestors were caught up in the fighting. Emigration records will show movement during the decade, as families still passed back and forth between Ireland and the rest of Britain. The returns for the 1926 Irish census will be released in January 2027.


Women mechanics 1920s
Car mechanics Violet and Evelyn Corderoy at Cobham, Surrey, 1929 (Credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images)
The Wall Street Crash

The 1920s ended with the Wall Street Crash – a global crisis that caused an economic recession and massive unemployment.

The workhouse (or the ‘Poor Law Institution’, as it was renamed) was still operative throughout the decade, despite the efforts and reforms to change the system. Although the methods were amended, the Poor Law Institution still functioned in the same way. Records might shed light on where your ancestors who had fallen on hard times were staying, and also what kind of poor relief they were given through the local board of guardians. Information about surviving workhouse records for England, Wales and Scotland can be found on Peter Higginbotham’s site.

Without considering the already high levels of unemployment and poverty, the Wall Street Crash takes the sheen off the final moments of the Roaring Twenties, and ensures that its final days perhaps don’t reflect the revolutionary decade that it had promised to be.

Although the wealth of material – much of it digitised and published online – available to family historians ultimately shows just how much had changed for our ancestors, many things will have stayed the same. Despite political successes and advocates for change, there was never one big cork-popping moment in the 1920s, no overnight progress or prosperity for all. Poverty and inequality still existed, there was still conflict in Ireland, and the “land fit for heroes” that the returning soldiers had been promised failed to materialise.

Instead, the 1920s brought slow-burning change, the result of years of political tension, campaigning, incentives and planning. And our forebears, however they lived, were a part of this new world, and the progressive force that took hold of the nation.

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