1939 Register

The 1939 register was taken on 29th September 1939, just three weeks after war had been declared on the 3rd September. It was taken because the government needed to carry out an emergency register for the purposes of creating a wartime register and issuing both identity and ration cards. It would have also be useful in identifying those eligible for conscription which did not begin in earnest until 1940.

The register was prepared, organised and conducted much like the census returns. They were the creation of the general register office with the administration being the responsibility of each registration district which, as with census returns, we’re divided into sub districts and enumeration districts. The register was to be taken throughout the UK including the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands although it is only the records for England and Wales which have been digitised. Unfortunately, the records for the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands have not survived whilst records for Scotland can be requested from the national records of Scotland and records for Northern Ireland can be requested from the public record office of Northern Ireland.

Everyone was to be included with the exception of those already in the armed services. Those who had already been conscripted would have been registered along with the regular armed forces who have their own system of identity cards and rationing however given that conscription didn’t we didn’t begin in earnest until 1940 many of our ancestors who served in the Second World War would still have been civilians when the register was taken.

The schedules were delivered to each household or institution and before the 29th September And were completed by the house by householders or institutions on that night.

When the registers were collected the enumerators would issue each person with their identity card which would be completed by hand. The numerators would I need to return as many times as it took to collect the completed schedules and deliver the identity cards. In theory this meant that every person should be included on the register, including shift workers itinerant workers, people living in caravans or barges etc or anyone who might be moving around the country for some reason. Those who deliberately avoided the enumerator or avoided completing the register were in the minority and were most likely trying to avoid conscription. In most cases failure to register was due to misunderstanding or force of circumstances And when people realised that this meant they were they would not receive an identity card or a ration book people working to sign up, but only those who were registered on the 29th of September 1939 will be found in the online register.

The enumerators would then copy the household schedules into transcription books and it is these transcription books which are available online. They were initially released on the Find My Past website but are now also available on other commercial websites such as Ancestry.

The completed transcription books were sent to the national registration headquarters at Southport in Lancashire whilst the household schedules were sent to local food offices to prepare ration books and then to the local national registration office where an index card would be created for each person in that borough or district.

Because the 1939 register became the foundation of a National Register details were continually updated with additional books being compiled listing newly born and newly arrived and anyone who had been omitted from the initial enumeration. This National Register was used by the NHS when it was newly formed in 1948 and after national registration ended on February 9 1952 the register continued to be used as the central register for the NHS.

Below is the extract from the register for my maternal grandparents with my aunt, their eldest child, redacted as she is still living.

So what information do they contain?

  • full names
  • sex
  • full dates of birth
  • marital status
  • occupations

Where people were recorded in institutions the register will show whether they were an officer, a visitor, a servant, a patient or an inmate.

Because of its alternative uses and its continued updating, for women who married after the register had been created it has been annotated with their married name.

The 1939 register therefore does provide an invaluable source to the family historian in finding details of their ancestors at the start of the Second World War Not least because it provides full days of birth but also a female ancestors married name. However, dates are not always accurate. I have certainly found in my own from history not the day a month may be correct but the year is incorrect. This may of course be due to transcription errors, a simple error by the person completing the schedule recording the incorrect year of birth, and in some cases may have been to avoid conscription. Making knowingly false statements was a serious office: there was one case where a man was sentenced to three months imprisonment for falsely claiming he was born in 1895 (making him 44 years of age) when in fact he was born in 1902 (making him 37 years of age), the upper age limit for conscription being 41 years. Also, in institutions housing mainly elderly people it was not unusual to see only the year of birth being recorded rather than the full date of birth.

When viewing the online records, you may note the transcription books extended over a double page for each entry but only the left hand page and the first column of the right hand page are available as a digitised entry. This is because the remainder of the right hand page may contain sensitive medical information added by the NHS and is therefore redacted indefinitely.  

Can’t find you ancestor? Due to confidentiality rulings people still alive after 1991 are redacted however those records can be unlocked upon the submission of proof of death of the individual on either the Find My Past website or to the National Archives.

If you are struggling to find your ancestors, would like to know more about your ancestors, or don’t know where to start and would like some help simply visit my website or email me: sarah@yourfamilythroughtime.co.uk.

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