Herstmonceux Castle in the 1921 Census


On 6th January 2022 the 1921 census, which has been closed for a century, was made available to the public for the first time. The census is a survey which, usually, is taken every ten years to provide a snapshot of all the people and households in England and Wales. The object of a census is not to obtain detailed information about individuals, but to provide information about the population as a whole. To do this every person is listed by name at the location they happen to be at on a particular night, which is always a Sunday; this has been deemed the most efficient way to count everybody once, and nobody twice.[1] Just over 100 years ago, on 19th June 1921, 38 million people living in England and Wales took part in the census and for the first time ever we have been able to see who was at Herstmonceux Castle on the night the 1921 census was taken.[2]

While the first official census for England and Wales took place in 1801, the 1841 census, run by the new registration service, is often regarded as the first ‘modern census’.[3] The concept of a census, however, goes back much further than this with the earliest known census being taken in c. 4000 BC by the Babylonians. The census was also used in Egypt c. 2500 BC, the Roman Empire in the sixth century BC and in China in c. 2 AD.

Mary and Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic. 1315. Available under the Creative Commons Licence.

In England and Wales, the origins of the census can be found in the Domesday Book (1086), a huge land survey compiled under William I, and the Hundred Rolls (1279), a landholding enquiry ordered by Edward I which was organised into Hundreds, hence the name ‘Hundred Rolls’. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries bishops were responsible for counting the number of families in their diocese. While Quebec had its first official census in 1666, Iceland in 1703 and Sweden in 1749, Britain was reluctant to adopt the idea of a regular, official census. At the time there was a strong belief that a census in Britain would reveal the nation’s strengths and weaknesses to foreign enemies.  However, towards the end of the eighteenth century, attitudes began to shift as it became increasingly obvious that we had very little idea about the number of people living in Britain.[4]

Census taker at the wagon of Indigenous Dutch Travellers, 1925, Verdine, the Netherlands. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

Since 1801 there has been a census every ten years in England and Wales, except in 1941, during the Second World War. The basic principles of census taking have remain the same, though new questions have been added and others have been omitted, reflecting the changing concerns of the times.

In 1921 the census asked people for their:

  • Name
  • Relationship to the head of the household
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Marital Status or Orphanhood
  • Nationality
  • Whether or not they were in education
  • Personal occupation
  • Type of employment (self-employed or working for a company)
  • Place of work

For the first time since 1841, there was no longer a question on infirmity or disability in the 1921 census and ‘divorced’ was added as an option for marital status.[5] The 1921 census also provided space to fill in how many people were in the household on the night of the census and how many rooms there were (excluding kitchens and bathrooms) which gives us an indication of living conditions during the inter-war period.

Unlike earlier censuses, the 1921 census (and later censuses) have been subject to the 1920 Census Act (amended by the Census Confidentiality Act 1991) which makes it illegal to disclose personal information held in a census until 100 years after the date they were conducted.[6] The 1920 Census Act also removed the need for Government to introduce a new Census Act every time they wished to carry out the survey. The latest census took place just last summer in 2021 and will not be available to look at for another 100 years.[7]

On the night of the 1921 census, somewhat surprisingly, there were only two people at Herstmonceux Castle: Mary Elphick and Anna Elphick, aged 61 and 78 respectively. Mary was listed as an employee of the castle as a ‘general domestic servant’ while Anna appears to have been a visitor. Mary’s marital status is given as ‘single,’ suggesting she was never married, while Anna is listed as a widow. It is entirely plausible that Anna and Mary are mother and daughter, but some further investigation will be needed to confirm this. From Herstmonceux Castle’s census entry we can see that by 1921 the castle had been renovated to include 15 rooms (excluding the kitchens and bathrooms) which gives us an indication of the level of work carried out under the direction of Colonel Claude Lowther, owner of the castle from 1911 until his death in 1929.

Photograph from the Dixon-Scott Collection held at The National Archives depicting Herstmonceux Castle’s entrance and bridge from the south side c. 1926-42. TNA INF 9/1161/3.

What is striking about the census return is Lowther’s absence from the castle given that the census was conducted in the height of summer when he would normally be at his country residence. Instead, we find Lowther at his London address on Catherine Street in the fashionable West End. Here Lowther is listed as the head of household on the night of the census and he is joined by his 26-year-old ward, Kenneth Cunningham, whose occupation, like Lowther’s, is given as ‘gentleman’. Lowther also has a number of servants present including his valet Charles Arthur Pack, Edith Hutchison (servant), Louise Marion Mary Pellet (housemaid), George Lionel Dearle (page) and Ellen Josephine Maguire (trained sick nurse). We can also see that Lowther’s London residence had ten rooms (excluding kitchens and bathrooms) which were being occupied by seven people. The results from this census entry tell us a number of things about the then castellan of Herstmonceux. Firstly, we can see that Lowther is still relatively active in his political career as the reason for his presence in London during June 1921 is likely to have been the Parliament that was sitting.[8] Secondly, the number of servants in his employ, the size and location of his London residence and his given occupation of being a ‘gentleman’ are an indication of his continued wealth and status. Finally, the intriguing presence of a ‘trained sick nurse’ in his household suggests that on the night of the census someone was unwell. Given that Lowther dies just a few years later from poor health in 1929, could this be the first recorded sign that Lowther’s health was starting to fail?

The Drummer’s Room, Herstmonceux Castle, in the 1920s which served as Colonel Claude Lowther’s bedroom.

While the census results for Herstmonceux Castle itself may feel somewhat disappointing, combined with the returns for Lowther they give us a snapshot of our history that we have not yet been privy to. This new information highlights how much Lowther had transformed the castle in just ten years, how connected he was with his London circle, and it gives us exciting new leads to follow in our research, for example, who was Lowther’s mysterious ‘ward’ Kenneth Cunningham?

If you would like to find out more about the 1921 census or research your own family or house history, The National Archives guide to using census records is a fantastic place to start.

Dr Claire Kennan, History Lecturer and Research Coordinator at the BISC.


[1] ‘Census Records’, The National Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/census-records/[last accessed 25/01/22].

[2] ‘The 1921 Census’, The National Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20s-people/the-1921-census/ [last accessed 25/01/22].

[3] ‘Census History’, Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census/howourcensusworks/aboutcensuses/censushistory [last accessed 25/01/22].

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Census Records’, The National Archives, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/census-records/[last accessed 25/01/22].

[6] Ibid.

[7] Census History’, Office for National Statistics, https://www.ons.gov.uk/census/2011census/howourcensusworks/aboutcensuses/censushistory [last accessed 25/01/22].

[8] Hansard 1803-2005, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/sittings/1921/jun/21 [last accessed 25/01/22].


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