On 29th September 1939, a census of all civilians living in Great Britain and Northern Ireland was taken, known as the 1939 Register. The Register represents one of the most important documents in 20th-century Britain as the information it contained not only helped towards the war effort, but was also used in the founding of the NHS. For family historians, it is a valuable resource as it bridges the gap between 1921 and 1951 (the 1931 census was destroyed during an air raid on London and the 1941 census was never taken).
In December 1938, it had been announced in the House of Commons that, in the event of war, a National Register would be taken which would be a critical tool in co-ordinating the war effort at home. It would be used to issue identity cards, organize rationing, etc. War was declared on 3rd September 1939; two days later the National Registration Act received royal assent, paving the way for National Registration Day on the 29th. Forms were issued to more than 41 million people. Enumerators were then charged with visiting every household to collect the name, address, marital status and other key details of every civilian, issuing identity cards on the spot.
The identity cards issued were essential items from the point the Register was taken right up until 1952, when the legal requirement to carry them ceased. Until that point, every member of the civilian population had to be able to present their card upon request by an official (children’s cards were looked after by parents), or bring them to a police station within 48 hours. The reasons were numerous – it was essential to know who everyone was, of course, and to track their movements as they moved house, as well as to keep track of the population as babies were born and people passed away.
The register continued to be updated manually for the next 50 or so years until 1991 when the NHS started computerizing its records. There are lots of intriguing annotations, but there was no standard format. Sometimes a name has been crossed out. Usually this was for when a woman married, but it could be if someone changed their name by deed poll, for example. In other cases, a date of birth has been amended or forenames changed.
The 1939 Register is available online at Findmypast. Owing to privacy regulations, information on people still living has been redacted and appear as “Record closed”. When the Register was first made available on Findmypast in 2015, anyone who was born less than 100 years but died prior to 1991 had their record opened automatically. Updates are continually being made for people who died after 1991 and the records released for public viewing. If you feel that a record is officially closed erroneously, you can submit a request along with evidence of death to have that record made available to view. This process is free for Findmypast subscribers. A short video on the Findmypast website gives a fascinating insight of the process involved in bringing the Register online.