• Andy Robson

What is the 1939 Register?

What is the 1939 Register and why is it so important for Family Historians?

Once the threat of war became a real possibility during the 1930's, plans were put in place to create a National Register to be enacted upon the outbreak of hostilities. The Great War had demonstrated how important it was to have such a Register for a wide variety of wartime measures.


There had been many shortcomings with the creation and use of the 1915 National Register (now, alas, lost in its entirety) and the creation of the new National Register was placed in the hands of the same people who carried out the 10-yearly Census - the General Register Office (GRO) - in the (correct) belief that this would make the process more efficient.


The first priority in the event of war was the issuing of Identity Cards (ID's) and plans were started as early as December,1938, to create and issue these. The existence of a new National Register was essential to this process. Around the same time plans were put in place for the evacuation of children from the country's largest cities. Evacuation Forms were circulated to parents as early as May,1939, and Operation Pied Piper went into action on 1 September; the day Germany invaded Poland.


The National Register soon followed. In 1939 the country was divided into more than 1,400 Administrative Areas for this purpose, each of which was assigned a 3-Letter code. A fourth (or sometimes fourth and fifth) letter was added to identify the Enumeration District within this Area. The aim was for each District to contain a maximum of 300 persons.


The infrastructure created for taking the 1941 Census (which did not actually happen due to the War) was seemlessly adapted to create the Register. On 5 September,1939, the National Registration Act was passed. This called for a National Register to be created for the purpose of issuing ID's to every person in the UK. 'National Registration Day' was enacted on Friday 29 September and around 41-million persons were recorded.


The week before Enumeration Officers had issued Schedules to each household within their District. Separate forms were issued to institutions such as Hospitals, Prisons, etc. The direction was to record each person who had spent the night in the household on Registration Night. Schedules were collected over the next few weeks, with the Officers issuing and ID's to each person listed on the spot. The Schedules (as with the Census) were then written-up in Enumeration Books.


The haste of the times is apparent and the Enumeration Books appear to contain far more errors than do the Enumeration Books for the Census returns. In addition, because of privacy concerns, those writing up the Schedules were only issued with single columns of data to transcribe, rather than whole pages. This meant that they could not check the whole entry for an individual to ensure that what they were writing made sense. Something to always bear in mind.


Every man, woman and child in the UK was to be covered, the exception being military personnel and government workers who already had ID cards. Whether by design or accident, some of these individuals slipped through the net and were recorded in the Register; such as military personnel being at home on leave.


Over the next few months, the Register was used for various other wartime measures, the most important being the issuing of Ration Books, and Conscription. The original Schedules were forwarded to local food centres for the issuing of Ration Books and unfortunately have not survived. Therefore the records you can see are the Enumeration Books written up by Enumeration Officers and not the original schedules completed by our ancestors.


It was always intended that the Register would be a 'living' document, with changes being made as individual died or married; the latter necessitating the issuing of replacement I/D's for women who changed their name. The National Register ceased to be amended in 1952 following the end of Rationing in the UK. However by that time it had been adopted by the National Health Service (the NHS, created in 1948) as its own Central Register. This meant that records continued to be updated until 1991 when the NHS moved to a computer-based system and the paper National Register was frozen. As a result many name changes were recorded as the result of marriages (and divorces) that took place in the 1950's, 1960's and 1970's. Absolute gold to genealogists. The dates recorded for such changes are NOT the date they occurred, but seem to be the date of the update, or possibly the date on the form that triggered the update.


Because the deaths of individuals were continuously updated the Register is particularly suitable for release to modern researchers. Thank goodness! The 100-year rule - by which the Register should have remained closed until 1940 - could be bypassed by only showing those entries for people known to be dead or who would have been over 100 years old in 1991. For everyone else, their entries were digitally blanked out and the note 'Closed Record' added. If you can prove that an individual has died since 1991, you can have the digital blanking removed. And, of course, individuals should be progressively revealed each year as they reach what would have been their 100th birthday. This is a massive undertaking, however - remember, 41 million individuals ! - so this will probably occur in batches.


Although the 1939 National Register covered the whole of the United Kingdom, the National Archives (and hence the transcripts on Family History sites) only holds the registers for England & Wales. Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands all have their own processes for accessing the Register.


There are sometimes notes added to entries in the Register. These are often given by means of abbreviations rather than written out in longhand; remember, the Register was only ever intended for official use, not for Family History. Decoding them is usually straight-forward, however. A 4 or 5 letter sequence will be the identifier for the Enumeration District in which the change took place. 'CR230' indicates that a name change took place due to marriage or divorce. 'NR230' indicates that it took place due to Deed Poll. Sometimes, where space is tight, a note "See Page ..." is added. These ‘continuation entries’ indicate where the additional information is written; usually at the end of the Enumeration Book or at the end of the next Book, wherever space was available. If the entry is in the same Book you can scroll to it through the Book pages.


The 1939 National Register is obviously important for 2 reasons:

1 We can access it now and don't have to wait until 2040;

2 It effectively replaces the 1941 Census which did not take place due to World War II.

In addition, however, the returns for the 1931 Census of England & Wales were destroyed in their entirety by a fire at the Office of Works in Hayes in December,1942; the 1931 Census for Scotland DOES exist as does the 1926 Census for Northern Ireland. This means that the Register is the only Census-like record existing for England & Wales between 1921 and 1951.