I said in my last post that the 1939 Register was not a census. It is, however, ‘census-like’, in that it includes some of the information normally included in our decennial censuses.
So what was it?
This ‘National Register’ had a very specific purpose: to coordinate the war effort at home. In December 1938 the decision was taken that, in the event of war, a Register would be compiled of every civilian in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Following invasion of Poland on 1st September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany on September 3rd. Final preparations were then put in place for ‘National Registration Day’, including issuing forms to more than 41 million people and appointing enumerators to visit every household to collect the information.
What information is included?
Information was collected for the night of September 29th 1939. For every civilian the following details were recorded:
- Surname and other names
- Date of birth
- Marital status
- Personal occupation
- There was also some official information (schedule number and sub number) plus, for institutions, a record of whether the individual was an Officer, Visitor, Servant, Patient or Inmate.
Anyone already engaged in military service on that date wasn’t included, even if they were currently billeted in their own homes. However, members of the armed forces on leave and civilians on military bases were included.
How was this information used?
- To issue identity cards: It was a legal requirement to present your identity card upon request by an official, or bring it to a police station within 48 hours; also to notify the registration authorities of any change of name or address. This requirement continued until 1952.
- After January 1940, to issue ration books. (Rationing finally ended in 1954)
- To organise conscription and the direction of labour for the war effort
- To monitor and control the movement of the population caused by military mobilisation and mass evacuation.
- After the war, in 1948, it was used in the establishment of the National Health Service, serving as the NHS Central Register. Until 1991, the Register was updated as people died or changed their names (on marriage or via deed poll).
Where is the Register kept?
Since the records were used by the NHS from its inception in 1948, the Register – 70,000 volumes containing more than 1.2 million pages of information – is kept at the Health and Social Care Information Centre. It’s not available to the general public but is now fully indexed and searchable with images on both FindMyPast and Ancestry. A transcript is also available at MyHeritage.
Why are some people not showing on the 1939 Register?
As mentioned above, anyone already on military service was not included in this Register. However, conscription didn’t really get under way until January 1940, so most people who went on to serve in the armed forces will still be recorded here.
However, you’ll notice that a lot of the individual records are blanked out with a thick black line and the words ‘This record is officially closed’. This is because the person may still be alive. Since the Register was updated until 1991, the record of anyone born less than 100 years ago but dying prior to 1991 will have been opened automatically. If your ancestor died since 1991 you can ask to have their individual record opened. This is free for FindMyPast users, and can be done via the website upon submission of a digital copy of the death certificate. If you’re not a FindMyPast subscriber you can use The National Archives Freedom of Information (FOI) request form to request a search of closed records from the 1939 Register, but there’s a charge (currently £24.35) for this.
How can we use it for genealogical research?
The information included is similar to the usual censuses, but covering fewer aspects of the person’s life and home.
It does, however, show exact date of birth, whereas the censuses simply give the person’s age. (I have noticed, though, that even though the birthday is usually correct, the actual year of birth is sometimes a year out.)
As the Register was continually updated while National Registration was in force, it will include any change of name or address right up to 1952.
Since the Register was then used by the NHS, any changes of name were recorded until 1991. This means you can search for a person using their name in 1939 or any subsequent changes – very useful for working out maiden names, previously unknown changes by deed poll or multiple marriages
However, there is an additional reason why the 1939 Register is so important to us as genealogists. If we don’t know names of grandparents or great grandparents, getting back to 1911 when we can start to use the regular census information, can be difficult. The 1939 Register gives us an extra chance of finding family members who were too young to be on the 1911 census but born by 1939 – and possibly still living with older family members who are on the previous census.
What’s more, after the forthcoming publication of the 1921 census (anticipated January 2022) this is the only surviving survey of the population until 1951. The 1931 census was destroyed during WW2. (Some accounts say it was during an air raid on London; others say it was a fire in 1942 not caused by enemy action, at the Office of Works in Hayes.) The 1941 census never happened.
Find out more
You’ll find a lot more information about the 1939 Register in the research guide at The National Archives.