Secrets of the 1911 Census: Five Famous British Authors

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Agatha Christie EM Forster George Orwell JRR Tolkien Virginia Woolf

In the second of a series exploring interesting returns in the 1911 census, I focus on famous authors. The census was taken on the night of Sunday 2 April 1911 and the law required everyone to be counted – although as many as a few thousand women suffragettes refused to participate, protesting against the government denying them the vote.

On census night, as the reproductions below show:

1. E. M. Forster (1879-1970), already a well-established author (A Room With A View, 1908; Howards End, 1910), was staying with his mother in Harnham, the house they owned in a village near Weybridge, in Surrey; it was here, around this time, that Forster also shared many of his happiest times with his male lover, Syed Ross Masood.

EM Forster census

2. Agatha Christie (1890-1976), then still Agatha Miller and not yet 21, was visiting her grandmother in west London. Already she was described as “a spinster”!

Agatha Christie census

3. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was Virginia Stephen, ahead of her marriage to Leonard Woolf the next year; she was living with her brother Adrian in Fitzroy Square and, though older than Christie, was not described as a spinster, instead giving her position as “journalist”. She would not publish her first novel until 1915.

Virginia Woolf census

4. J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973), on the cusp of adulthood, was an orphan, lodging with the director of a whiskey distillery near King Edward’s School in Birmingham; he was about to complete his studies there. After spending the summer in Switzerland, hiking, he would go up to Oxford, where he would make his career and write his world-famous books.

JRR Tolkien census

5. George Orwell (Eric Blair, 1903-50) was just seven, and attending school in Henley-on-Thames; he lived with his sister and mother, and two servants. And (a fact that the census return can only allude to) he had not seen his father, who was away working in India, for almost four years – or over half his life.

George Orwell census

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