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]

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.[3] 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?

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