DISCOVER HIDDEN CLUES IN THE 1939 REGISTER
Audrey explains how to use this wartime survey to locate your anestors
W ar was looking increasingly likely in the late 1930s, and the British government was planning ahead. The country had to be ready for the worst, and National Registration would be part of that. An accurate record of the civilian population was needed for a number of reasons: for the direction of labour, for the issue of ration books, and for conscription into the armed forces. All of these had been attempted in the First World War, with mixed results. Not only that – the next census was due to be taken in 1941, and preparations had to be made for that, too.
The General Register Office made a combined set of plans for both events, using the familiar framework of registration districts, sub-districts and enumeration districts (EDs). The census would go ahead as planned if the country was at peace in 1941, but with contingencies in place to take a national register at very short notice.
As we now know, the 1941 census was not taken, but the plans for a national register were put into action just over three weeks after
war was declared on 3 September. The register was taken throughout the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, but only the records for England and Wales have been digitised – these are available online through
findmypast.co.uk. Extracts from the register for Scotland or Northern Ireland can be requested from the National Records of Scotland or the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland respectively. Unfortunately the records for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have not survived.
As with a census, a schedule was delivered to each household or institution and had to be completed on registration night, 29 September – a Friday. Each person’s name, date of birth, marital status and occupation was recorded. For people in institutions, the schedule also shows whether they were an officer, visitor, servant, patient or inmate. When the enumerator returned to collect the completed schedules, he or she had to issue each person with their identity card, which they completed by hand. Each identity card had a unique number. This comprised the four- or five-letter code for the ED, the number of the household, and that person’s number within the household. EDs varied in size, but most enumerators had to write out several hundred cards. They were instructed to return as often as it took to collect every schedule they had delivered, but this was easier said than done. Some people, such as shift workers, were not at home when they called, and others had moved away in the meantime. Then there were all kinds of itinerant workers, people in caravans or barges, and anyone who might be moving around the country for some reason.
When the enumerators had collected all of the household schedules and issued identity cards, they still had work to do. All of the details from the household schedules had to be copied into transcript books, and these are the pages that we now consult online. The names are mainly recorded in address order, as you would expect to see them in a census, but the enumerators were instructed to enter details from the schedules in the order in which they were collected. So if they had to make repeated visits to a particular address, you might find its occupants listed at the end of the book, and not among their neighbours.
Unfortunately there is limited place information in the transcript book for each ED. The top of each page shows the ED four-letter code, the name of the borough or district, and the number of the registration district and sub-district. There was no space to record any other division such as a parish, village or hamlet,
A schedule had to be completed on registration night, 29 September
so it can be very difficult to identify these smaller settlements unless they happen to be noted in the address. The enumerators had been issued with enumeration books, similar to the enumerators’ summary books used in the 1911 census, giving details of the boundary and contents of each district. Sadly these were never collected centrally, and are believed to have been destroyed. The completed transcript books were then sent to National Registration headquarters at Southport in Lancashire. Because the administration of food rationing and maintaining National Registration records at local level were functions of local government, the volumes were not arranged by registration district but by county borough, municipal borough, urban district or rural district. London had its own arrangement of metropolitan boroughs, plus the cities of London and Westminster.
Each entry extended across a double-page spread in the transcript book, but only the left-hand page and the first column of each right-hand page are visible in the digitised records. This is because the register was later used by the National Health Service, and the rest of the right-hand page, known as the ‘Postings’ column, may contain sensitive medical information and is therefore closed indefinitely. The register was acquired as a ‘digital only’ accession by The National Archives, which has no access to the information in the Postings column.
The household schedules were sent to the local Food Office to prepare ration books, and then to the local National Registration Office where an index card was created for each person in that borough or district. In theory every civilian was included in the register, unless they were in the armed services, who had their own system of identity cards and rationing (although there were other exceptions – see the box below). As well as regular forces personnel, this included reserves who had already been called up and the first set of 20-year-olds conscripted under the 1939 Military Training Act. Note that since conscription did not begin in earnest until 1940, most people who went on to serve in the forces were still civilians in September 1939.
A few serving members of the forces can be found in the published register, but only if they happened to be at home on leave on 29 September. Foreign nationals were included, whether they were long-term visitors or were only in the country for a few days. Two special Foreign Office books with the letter code FOAA recorded diplomatic staff from the various embassies in London, plus Eleanor Roosevelt, then the First Lady.
The Foreign Office books also included the royal families of the Netherlands and Norway who were
In institutions containing many elderly people it is not unusual to see only the year of birth recorded
with George VI and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother at Buckingham Palace. However, the two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were at Balmoral, so they were enumerated in the Scottish register.
The information in the register has proved invaluable to family historians, not least because it records exact dates of birth. Sadly these have not always proved to be accurate. There are many cases where the day and month are correct, but the year is wrong. The very first entry in the entire register is for the aptly named Herbert Start, whose birth year is shown as 1903; he was actually born in 1905, although the day and month appear to be correct. In other cases the date of birth or some other detail might be wrongly recorded by the head of the household, and the subjects themselves either didn’t notice or didn’t care. In institutions containing many elderly people it is not unusual to see only the year of their birth recorded, rather than the full date. One man was sentenced to three months in prison for making a false statement, claiming that he was born in 1895, when his actual birth date was in 1902. Since the upper age limit for conscription was 41, this was a serious offence.
The law required everyone to carry their identity card at all times, and to produce it when asked to do so by a police officer or other authorised official. For the first time people routinely carried with them a means of identification, which helped
the police with the grisly task of identifying dead bodies, and at least one careless burglar was caught when he dropped his card at the scene.
You needed an identity card to get a ration book, and had to produce both to collect your rations, so a stolen ration book was no use without the identity card. This did not prevent fraud or theft, but it made them more difficult. Wartime newspapers contain many accounts of people caught using stolen or forged cards. One of the most audacious was John Segal, who registered five entirely fictitious people in 1939 and used the resulting identity cards and ration books to claim five extra sets of rations for years. And an organised conspiracy involved a young man with a heart condition who impersonated other young men at medical examinations, using their identity cards, for up to £200 a time, so that they could escape military service.
The most notorious forged identity card was the one used by the spy Josef Jakobs, who in 1941 became the last man executed in the Tower of London. Although convincing at first glance, it was easily identified as a forgery by the format of the identity number, which had been supplied by a double agent.
Inevitably some people’s cards were lost or stolen; the Yorkshire
Evening Post reported that in July 1940 the Leeds National Registration Office had received 700 applications for replacement cards, and that the Keighley office had to take on extra staff to deal with applications. The registration clerks were very pleased when people had kept a separate record of their identity number.
The 1939 Register became the foundation of a National Register. Details were continually updated as necessary, and additional books were compiled listing the newly born and newly arrived, and anyone who had been omitted from the enumeration. In 1948 the newly formed NHS needed a register, and the National Register, which ran to a substantial number of volumes, fitted the bill.
From 1948 both organisations used it, and when national registration ended in February 1952 the register continued as the Central Register of the NHS. This was updated until 1991, when the paper-based system was replaced with a computerised one. The original paper volumes from the 1939 Register are still held by NHS Digital.
A man delivers schedules for the 1939 Register in London. The information collected from England and Wales is available online
A family in north London filling in their national registration forms in 1939
Who Do You Think You Are?
Who Do You Think You Are? A woman registers her family with a grocer for rations of bacon, ham, butter and sugar