DIS­COVER HID­DEN CLUES IN THE 1939 REG­IS­TER

Au­drey ex­plains how to use this wartime sur­vey to lo­cate your anestors

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

Iden­tity theft

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

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