The results of the 1921 census were released on January 6, and many people were keen to find out about their relatives that year. This census is particularly interesting because it presents a detailed portrait of the country’s adaptation to peacetime and the impact of the First World War on society and individuals. It tells us a lot about the people of the 1920s: their jobs, their relationships, their homes.
Popular myth paints two pictures of the year 1921. The most destructive war ever had ended three years before and was followed by the deadly Spanish flu pandemic. An economic storm was raging in parts of the country, with unemployment reaching all-time highs in some places. However, the year 1921 has also been portrayed as the beginning of the “Roaring Twenties”.
Those in steady jobs could spend like never before on a gleaming array of new consumer goods; cinemas and dance halls exploded; and the “bright young people” danced and drank cocktails. A hedonistic spirit banished memories of the sad war years.
One could conclude that in 1921 weariness and optimism reigned in equal measure.
What was happening at Watford in 1921? The city reflects the national image well. He was undoubtedly still suffering from the trauma of the recent conflict and the loss of life from the Spanish flu pandemic: between October 1918 and February 1919, 179 Watford residents died of the disease. Yet the green shoots of prosperity and confidence that would characterize the 1920s are beginning to emerge.
A total of 818 men from the urban district of Watford lost their lives in the First World War. Every year until 1928, Watford Council held Christmas parties and entertainments for town children who had lost their fathers. Other men have returned from the conflict with life-altering injuries. In May 1921, the Hertfordshire War Pensions Committee said that over 13,000 Hertfordshire men had registered for pensions due to conditions such as shell shock, tuberculosis, loss of limbs and loss of sight. The committee recommended that houses built by the council on Watford’s new Harebreaks estate should accommodate ‘tuberculosis ex-servicemen – a number of houses should be built so that at least one room is suitable for full treatment air”.
The 1921 census showed the population of Watford Urban District to be 45,922, 21,485 male and 24,437 female. A closer look reveals stark gender disparities caused primarily by war. Among those aged 25 to 34, there were 3,900 women, 20% more than the male total of 3,252. Of these 3,900 women, almost 40% were single or widowed.
Nonetheless, there had been a marriage boom in Watford in 1919 and 1920, with 484 happy couples marrying in the city’s six largest churches in those two years. A baby boom followed in 1920, with nearly 1,100 babies born. 1921 saw a decrease in marriages and births in Watford. A total of 194 couples were married. The second most popular day for weddings in Watford was Boxing Day, indicating that it must have been difficult for couples to get a day off for their nuptials. The number of births was 890. The most popular names for Watford baby boys in 1921 were John, Ronald, William, George and Frederick, and the most popular names for Watford baby girls were Joan, Joyce, Dorothy , Margaret and Winifred.
A view of the High Street at the junction of Clarendon Road c1921
The 1921 census showed how employment at Watford had changed over the previous ten years. In 1911, the top five male occupations were building and construction, food, drink and tobacco, railroad work, professional occupations, and road transport. By 1921, business-oriented employment was much more common, with the top five occupations being commerce, finance and insurance, clerical and drafting, metalworking, building and construction, and general labor. wood. The female labor force has increased by 28% in ten years and, for women, the changes in employment are even more marked. In 1911, the top five female occupations were domestic service, dressmaking, food, drink and tobacco, laundry and washing services, and paper and printing. In 1921, domestic service was still the largest employer of women, but its percentage of the workforce had dropped dramatically, from 28% to 18%. The other main occupations for women were clerical work and design, commerce, finance and insurance, printing and the liberal professions.
By 1921 Watford’s printing industry, which was to become the town’s main employer in the 20th century, was emerging as a major source of employment. It ranked sixth among employers for men and fourth among women. In August 1919, Sun Engraving had opened on Whippendell Road. New weekly periodicals, in an increasing range of colors, would emerge from Sun’s printing work during the 1920s.
However, unemployment still affected Watford in 1921, but not to the extent of the northern regions. The city had a workforce of nearly 21,000. Yet when Watford Council met to discuss the matter in October 1921, it was reported that 910 Watford residents were ‘signing the unemployment register’ at the Labor Exchange in Queen’s Road. The most frequent usual occupations of the unemployed were: heavy labourers, building labourers, light labourers, fitters, general employees, carmen, journeyman fitters and electricians. These occupations testify to the difficulties encountered in the post-war building trade.
Watford Council has taken an informed approach to the unemployment problem. A public works program was developed to employ the unemployed. The proposed program included: widening and improving roads, rebuilding sewers, dredging and cleaning up the River Colne and building tennis courts and pavilions in Cassiobury Park.
It has also been proposed that families in distress due to unemployment receive a Christmas dinner funded by Watford Council’s Soup Kitchen fund.
Substandard housing was a major problem Watford council needed to tackle. A 1919 survey found that 720 single-family houses were occupied by two or more households. Watford Labor Councilor Gorle warned that men returning from the front would want houses and if they did not get them there would be serious problems. The government introduced grants to local authorities to build new homes, and Watford council took full advantage. He drew up plans for the Harebreaks estate, Willow Lane and the Wiggenhall Road estate. The first tenants of the new council houses on the Harebreaks moved in during the summer of 1921.
There was economic gloom and housing shortages in 1921, but there was also bright sunshine. Anticyclonic systems in the Azores prevailed over the whole country from May to October. Under the title “Our Wonderful Summer”, the West Herts and Watford Observer’s The leader’s column reflected on “a long spectacle of glorious days”, during which there had not been a single wet summer Saturday. Holidaymakers no longer had to worry about the weather, and cricket and tennis had flourished.
Watford’s ever-sharp retailers took advantage of the good weather. “Do all your holiday shopping at Clements” was a banner headline. Ashwells and Sons Drapers have offered men’s summer clothing deals for ‘Magical Margate’ breaks. Kodak advertised cameras of all sizes to suit all budgets: “Every hour of your vacation provides a scene or incident that requires a Kodak.”
Yet the pleasures were available throughout the year. At the start of 1921, Watford had no less than four cinemas. “Kismet” and “The Battle of Jutland” were major cinematic successes that year. Such was the town’s craze for movie watching that Batemans Opticians on Dudley’s Corner advertised their treatments for ‘Cinema Headache – caused by various sight defects’.
A bustling Watford High Street in the early 1920s
There was plenty of fun outside the cinemas. Kingham Hall in St John’s Road was a favorite venue for dances, whist rides and concerts, and the Empress Ballroom offered “up-to-date dances every Saturday”. The Essex Arms Hotel was “the place to lunch, dine and stay”. Elliotts in Queens Road and the Watford Piano Saloon had a flourishing trade in gramophones and records.
Was Watford starting to ‘roar’ in 1921? The following year, in October 1922, the city was granted borough status in recognition of its growth and prosperity. The borough charter was presented to the mayor in a ceremony attended by the county’s Lord Lieutenant, and celebrations were held throughout the town. “Until now, the city has been just an urban neighborhood, claiming only the passing interest of its neighbors.” say it West Herts and Watford Observer. “Now the borough of Watford, with the possibilities of the highest standards of civic life, comes of age”. This indeed set the stage for years of expansion and wealth. During the 1920s, the printing and paper industries flourished and the retail sector boomed. Splendid new homes were built across the city, including the Cassiobury Estate on which the new Metropolitan Line station opened in 1925. The population grew from 46,000 in 1921 to almost 57,000 in 1931 , with much of this growth due to households moving to the city. somewhere else. Obviously Watford was a good place to live.
Still, memories of the war prevailed. War memorial services received wide coverage, “In Memoriam” announcements for fallen loved ones continued to fill the pages of the West Herts and Watford Observer, and in 1925 the Peace Memorial Hospital opened as Watford’s main tribute to men who never returned. The atmosphere of 1921, this combination of weariness and optimism, would characterize the city in the 1920s.
Helen George lives in Watford and has always been fascinated by the city’s 20th century history. She gives presentations on topics including Watford’s experience of the Spanish Flu pandemic 1918-19, the first 25 years of the National Health Service in the city 1948-1973, and the role of retail businesses on the frontline interior between 1914 and 1918. She is currently studying the lesser-known aspects of life at Watford during the Second World War.