The 1921 census, which was released by the U.K.’s National Archives department on Thursday, provides a snapshot into the lives of some of Britain’s best known names long before they became famous. In all, 38 million people were required to fill out the survey just over a hundred years ago, with each citizen individually listed by name.
According to his census entry, in 1921 Alfred Hitchcock was still living at home in Southwark, south London, alongside his 56-year-old mother Emma. His occupation is listed as “Title Designer for Film Company.” At the time, he was working at Famous Players-Lasky, Paramount Pictures’ production arm, which was based in Islington.
Laurence Olivier, still years away from becoming one of Britain’s best-known actors, was 14 years and one month old and a full-time pupil at All Saints choir school in central London. Under the heading “Orphanhood,” his entry reads: “Mother dead” as his mother Agnes had died the previous year.
Olivier’s future wife, Vivien Leigh, was still only 7 years old in 1921 and a pupil at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Wandsworth on the other side of London. The tempestuous couple wouldn’t meet for another 15 years.
Meanwhile “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” author Roald Dahl was just 4 years old. He was living in Glamorganshire, in Wales, and is listed under his mother Sofie’s entry alongside his three sisters (one of whom tragically died in 1920) and four servants: a cook, domestic nurse, parlor maid and housemaid. Sofie is listed as the head of the household, her husband Harald having died of pneumonia within weeks of their eldest daughter the previous year.
In 1921, Britain was still reeling from both World War I (1914-1918) and the Spanish flu pandemic (1918-1920), the effects of which can be seen throughout the census. The form was required to be completed by all households and institutions (such as boarding schools) in England and Wales on June 19, 1921. Everyone in the household was required to be included, from family members to guests to servants.
Future matinee idol Dirk Bogarde — born Derek Vanden Bogarde — was just two months old in June 1921 and is listed alongside his parents, Abric and Margaret, as living in Hampstead, in north London, while Peter Cushing, who would go on to play Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars,” was then an 8-year-old schoolboy living at home in Surrey with his parents, brother and a servant.
Rex Harrison, who would be immortalized on screen as Professor Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” opposite Audrey Hepburn, and also played Julius Caesar in “Cleopatra,” was in 1921 simply 13-year-old Reginald who lived alongside his two older sisters and a handful of servants. And Arthur Gielgud — who, in his later life, would be better known as actor and theater director Sir John Gielgud — was 17 years old and living at home in the tony district of Kensington, London, with his mother, father and three servants.
As well as film actors and directors (there weren’t any TV stars because electronic televisions wouldn’t be invented for another five years), some of Britain’s most celebrated authors also appear on the census, including Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and “The War of the Worlds” author H.G. Wells.
J.R.R. Tolkien was 29 years old and living in Leeds, where he worked as an English professor at the University of Leeds. Among those listed in his household are his wife, Edith, who was three years his elder, their two infant sons, John and Michael, one of Edith’s relatives, who was visiting, a cook and a nursemaid. He would not publish “The Hobbit” for another 16 years.
On June 19, 1921, Virginia Woolf, aged 39, was living with her husband Leonard and two servants in East Sussex. Under “occupation,” she is listed as an author. (Woolf would go on to die by suicide 20 years later.) Agatha Christie, meanwhile, who is described as a novelist, was 29 years old and among a group of visitors at a friend’s house on the night the census was taken. She had only just published her first book, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” the previous year. Alongside her are listed five other visitors (a Bank of England employee, an accountant, a housewife and two children) as well as her host and two servants.
“Sherlock Holmes” creator Arthur Conan Doyle was 62 in 1921 and living with his wife Jean and three children in Sussex alongside five servants. On the day of the census, he was also hosting a trio of family friends. And Joseph Conrad, who wrote “The Heart of Darkness” (on which “Apocalypse Now” is loosely based), was 63 and living in Kent with his wife, his younger son Alfred Borys and a cornucopia of staff including a secretary, nurse, chauffeur and house maid. On the day the census was completed, he was also visited by three friends, including the Scottish author Richard Curle.
Among other writers included in the census are future “1984” author George Orwell, under his real name Eric Arthur Blair, who was then 17 and visiting friends in Kent, and C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” who was 22 years old and described as a “boarder” at the Oxfordshire home of a woman called Janie King Moore.
Moore was in fact the mother of one of Lewis’s fellow army cadets, Paddy Moore, who died during WWI. The two men had reportedly promised each other that should one die in battle the other would take care of both their families. In the event of Paddy’s death, Lewis ended up living with Moore and Paddy’s sister Maureen (who is also listed on the census under the same entry) and came to regard her as a mother, his own having died when he was a child.
There are a handful of British-born names, however, who don’t seem to appear on the census. Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin, who were 17 and 32 respectively, were both working in California at the time, as was Bob Hope, who, although born in London, had immigrated to the U.S. with his family 13 years earlier.
Also missing from the register is James Bond creator Ian Fleming, who was then 13 years old and about to enroll at elite boys’ school Eton College. However, his mother, Evelyn Fleming, appears in the census as living in Hampstead alongside his 7-year-old brother Michael and the family’s eight servants, including six maids, a cook and a governess. On the census Evelyn has listed herself as the head of the household. Her husband, Conservative politician Valentine Fleming, was killed by German shellfire three years earlier on the battlefields of World War I.
(Pictured: Roald Dahl, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Alfred Hitchcock)