The results of the 1921 census were published on January 6 and many people have been keen to find out about their relatives that year. This census is particularly interesting because it presents a detailed picture of how the country adapted to peacetime and the impact of the First World War upon 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 known had ended just three years before and had been followed by the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic. An economic storm was raging over parts of the country, with unemployment climbing to unprecedented heights in some places. Yet the year 1921 has also been depicted as the beginning of the “Roaring Twenties”.
Those in steady employment could spend as never before on a glittering array of new consumer goods; cinemas and dance halls boomed; and “bright young things” danced and drank cocktails. A hedonistic spirit was banishing memories of the woeful wartime years.
We might conclude that in 1921 weariness and optimism were prevailing in equal measure.
What was happening in Watford in 1921? The town very much reflected the national picture. It was undoubtedly still suffering from the trauma of the recent conflict and the loss of life in 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 which would characterise the 1920s were starting to emerge.
A total of 818 men of the Watford urban district lost their lives during the First World War. Every year until 1928 Watford Council held Christmas parties and entertainments for the children of the town who had lost their fathers. Other men returned from the conflict with life-changing injuries. In May 1921 the Hertfordshire War Pensions Committee stated that more than 13,000 Hertfordshire men had registered for pensions because of conditions which included shellshock, tuberculosis, the loss of limbs, and the loss of sight. The committee recommended the council-built homes on Watford’s new Harebreaks estate should cater for “tuberculous ex-Servicemen – a certain number of houses should be constructed so that at least one room is adaptable for the purposes of open-air treatment”.
The census 1921 showed the population of the Watford Urban district was 45,922 people, 21,485 males and 24,437 females. Closer examination reveal stark disparities between the genders caused mainly by the war. Among 25 to 34-year-olds there were 3,900 females, 20 per cent higher than the male total of 3,252. Of these 3,900 females, almost 40 per cent were either single or widowed.
Nevertheless, there had been a Watford wedding boom in 1919 and 1920, with 484 happy couples tying the knot in the town’s six biggest churches in those two years. A baby boom followed in 1920, with nearly 1,100 babies being born. 1921 saw a decrease in both weddings 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 work 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 in Watford had changed during the previous ten years. In 1911 the top five occupations for males had been building and construction, food, drink and tobacco, railway work, professional occupations and road transport. In 1921 business-orientated employment was much more prevalent, with the top five occupations being commerce, finance and insurance, clerical and draughtsmanship, metal working, building and construction, and wood working. The female workforce increased by 28 per cent in ten years, and for women the changes in employment are even more stark. 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 biggest employer of women, but its percentage of the workforce had fallen dramatically, from 28 to 18 per cent. The other top occupations for women were clerical and draughtsmanship, commerce, finance and insurance, printing, and professional occupations.
In 1921 Watford’s printing industry, which was to become the dominant employer of the town in the 20th century, was emerging as a major source of employment. It ranked as the sixth biggest employer for males and fourth biggest employer for females. In August 1919 Sun Engraving had opened its doors on Whippendell Road. New weekly periodicals, in an increasing array of colours, would emerge from Sun’s print works during the 1920s.
However, unemployment still affected Watford in 1921, although not to the extent of northern areas. The town had a workforce of nearly 21,000 people. Yet when Watford Council met to discuss the issue in October 1921 it was reported that 910 Watford residents were “signing the unemployment book” at the Queen’s Road Labour Exchange. The most frequent usual occupations of unemployed persons were listed as: heavy labourers, builders’ labourers, light labourers, fitters, general clerks, carmen, fitters’ mates and electricians. These occupations indicate the difficulties experienced in the post-war building trade.
Watford Council took an enlightened approach to the unemployment problem. A public works programme was drawn up to employ those out of work. The proposed programme included: road widening and improvement, reconstruction of sewers, the dredging and clearing of the River Colne, and the construction of tennis courts and pavilions in Cassiobury Park.
It was also proposed that families in distress because of unemployment should be given a Christmas dinner funded by Watford Council’s Soup Kitchen fund.
Poor housing was a major issue for Watford Council to tackle. A 1919 survey found that 720 homes intended for one family were occupied by two or more households. Councillor Gorle, a member of the Watford Labour Party, warned that men who came back from the front would want homes, and if they did not get them there would be serious trouble. The Government introduced subsidies to local authorities to build new homes, and Watford Council took full advantage of this. It drew up plans for the Harebreaks Estate, Willow Lane and the Wiggenhall Road estate. The first tenants of the new council homes on the Harebreaks moved in during the summer of 1921.
There was economic gloom and housing shortage in 1921, but there was also glorious sunshine. High pressure weather systems from the Azores prevailed over the entire country from May to October. Under the headline of “Our Wonderful Summer”, the West Herts and Watford Observer’s leader column reflected upon “a long pageant of glorious days”, during which there had not been a single wet summer Saturday. Holiday makers had been free of anxiety about the weather, and cricket and tennis had flourished.
The ever-astute Watford retailers cashed in on the beautiful weather. “Do all your holiday shopping at Clements” was a banner headline. Ashwells and Sons Drapers offered deals for men’s summer clothing for breaks in “Magical Margate”. Kodak advertised cameras of all sizes to suit all pockets: “Every hour of your holiday provides some scene or incident that calls for a Kodak”.
Yet pleasures were available throughout the year. By early 1921 Watford boasted no fewer than four cinemas. “Kismet” and the “The Battle of Jutland” were big cinematic hits that year. Such was the town’s fondness for watching films that Batemans Opticians on Dudley’s Corner advertised its treatments for “Cinema Headache – caused by various eyesight defects”.
A bustling Watford High Street in the early 1920s
There was fun to be had outside the cinemas. Kingham Hall in St John’s Road was a premier venue for dances, whist drives and concerts, and the Empress Ball Room 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 did a brisk trade in gramophones and records.
Was Watford starting to “roar” in 1921? The following year, in October 1922, the town attained borough status in recognition of its growth and prosperity. The borough charter was presented to the mayor in a ceremony attended by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, and celebrations were held throughout the town. “Hitherto the town has been merely an urban district, claiming only the passing interest of its neighbours.” said the West Herts and Watford Observer. “Now the Borough of Watford, with the possibilities of the highest standards of civic life, comes of age”. This did indeed set the stage for years of expansion and affluence. During the 1920s the printing and paper industries thrived and the retail sector boomed. Splendid new homes were built across the town, including the Cassiobury Estate upon which the new Metropolitan Line station opened in 1925. The population rose from 46,000 in 1921 to almost 57,000 in 1931, with much of this growth driven by households moving to the town from elsewhere. Clearly, Watford was a good place to live.
Yet memories of the war prevailed. War commemoration services received extensive coverage, “In Memoriam” announcements for lost 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 the men who never came home. The mood of 1921, that combination of weariness and optimism, would characterise the town in the 1920s.
Helen George lives in Watford and has always been fascinated by the town’s 20th century history. She gives presentations on subjects such as Watford’s experience of the Spanish Flu pandemic 1918-1919, the first 25 years of the National Health Service in the town 1948-1973, and the role of retail businesses on the Home Front between 1914 and 1918. She is currently researching the lesser known aspects of life in Watford during the Second World War.