Preparations are now under way for Scotland’s Census 2021 but a hundred years ago the First World War had a dramatic impact on the people who planned and delivered the census in 1921.

This photo shows Census staff in 1911 in what is now the Archivist’s Garden between General Register House and New Register House in Edinburgh.

The largely male staff of the 1911 census
The staff of the 1911 Census, pictured in what is now the Archivists’ Garden between General Register House and New Register House in Edinburgh


The 1921 photo was taken on the steps of George Heriot’s School in Edinburgh

The staff of the 1921 Census - including many more women than the 1911 Census.
The staff of the 1921 Census – including many more women than the 1911 Census.

The two pictures reflect a direct consequence of the First World War when women entered the workplace in large numbers, many for the first time, releasing men to go to war.  Some worked in occupations never previously done by women on the railways, in shipyards, munitions’ factories.  After the war – when the men returned – some left their employment but many remained in work. One such work opportunity – the decennial Census.

There may be another reason – a technological one. The 1911 Census enumerator returns were written up into volumes by hand – the 1921 Census volumes were typed up. Many (though not all) of the women pictured were probably typists or ‘type operatives’ – or pantographic card punch operators!

In 1911, Dr James Craufurd Dunlop was Superintendent of Statistics and ran the 1911 Census (see top left insert image of the 1911 Census photo). He was appointed Registrar General for Scotland in 1921 (front row centre of 1921 photo). He was enthusiastic about new technology to assist in the time-consuming task of analysing statistical data and presided over the introduction of the Hollerith technique for mechanical tabulation for the 1911 Census.  Herman Hollerith had developed an electromechanical punched card tabulator to assist in collating information for the US census. His punched card tabulating machine marked the beginning of semi-automatic data processing, and it is likely that Dr Dunlop extended its use for calculating the 1921 Census figures in Scotland as well.

One hundred years later and National Records of Scotland will be following in Dr Dunlop’s technological footsteps with the delivery of the 2021 Census, as for the first time we will encourage the majority of people to take part online. However, assistance (and paper) will be made available for those who need it.

You can expect to hear more about Scotland’s Census 2021 on Open Book in the coming months.


Bruno Longmore, Head of Government Records

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