1939 and all that…

For about a year or so those of us with a keen interest in genealogy have been eagerly anticipating the release of the 1939 Register. For those of you in the dark – the 1939 Register was taken in England and Wales on 29th September 1939, almost a month into the outbreak of World War II. It was used to gather information on residents in order to create National Identity Cards that were used during the war and then continued to be used as a source of information by the National Health Service (from its formation in 1948) up until 1991 when it computerised its records. Had World War II not happened – or been a lot shorter, then the planned 1941 census would have gone ahead – and most of the administrative work to prepare for the 1941 census went towards gathering the information for the 1939 Register. It was taken in a rather quick time, due to the need to gather the information quickly, a large team of enumerators had been recruited two years previously in the event of war breaking out – such was the climate in those years leading up to WWII. If people didn’t give their details for the register, they were not issued with Identity Cards and likewise were not issued with Ration Cards – so no registration meant no rations! There is a great article on the National Archives website here which gives some more background information.

The inside of my paternal grandfather’s registration card.

Up until earlier this month, if you wanted access to the register you had to submit a Freedom of Information request to Health and Social Care Information with details of the person along with their exact address at the time. This was also costly with a search fee of £45. As of the start of November 2015 the records are available to search and view via FindMyPast – although not under any current subscription, only by purchasing credits – which too are costly. Although there was an initial offer for existing subscribers for a 25% discount for a 300 credit package which I made use of.

So what information is available?

Firstly – as the register was used up until 1991 it *should* allow you to view information for anyone who died before then – however as I have found out, that is not always the case.

It will give you the name, date of birth, gender, marital status and occupation of a person – along with of course their address. Similar to a census it was who was in the household on that day as to where an individual would be recorded. Anyone on active service in the armed forces wasn’t listed – as they were on a separate register – as were anyone who was out of the country or simply registered late.

Women who married after the register was taken – and before 1991 – had their married names given as a change to the register – so this is very helpful too.

Often you may see annotations to the side which reference involvement with the Air Raid Patrol (ARP) and there may be other annotations which might relate to medical data or other information which is held on other pages or on different registers.

Image from the Findmypast blog

Image from the Findmypast blog

What information isn’t available? 

It doesn’t give place of birth. It is also not like a normal census in that it doesn’t give particular information about marriages or number of children born like in the 1911 census for example. It also doesn’t give the relationships between the people in the property. Of course there are plenty of other things that aren’t available but I’m only really talking in the sense as if you were looking at a census record.

Is the information accurate?

Mmmm – as usual with sources like these and census and certificates, it is as accurate as what the person giving the information knows (or indeed are willing to provide – some people might have liked to make themselves out to be younger than they really were!) I’ve already found inconsistencies with dates of birth, being years out, or slightly different by a few days.  And as mentioned above – people who had died prior to 1991 having a closed record because the information hasn’t been updated.

Is it worth the money?


If you think that after the 1921 census was taken, we have no census data for England and Wales until 1951 due to there being no census taken in 1941 due to the war, and the 1931 census being destroyed in a fire during the war. So this register provides a snapshot of information between 1921 and 1951 and has been released earlier than we will get to see the 1921 census – and of course will have to wait till 2051 or after to see the 1951 census information.

It is also worth thinking about the vast effort and expense put in by the people at Findmypast to scan and transcribe all this information, the way they worked in order to protect information relating to living people by being given the images in sections so no one person got to see a full record. Of course this method has led to some errors with transcription, but hopefully in time these will get corrected.

Yes it is pricey – and yes I have already spent a fortune looking up oodles of people because I wanted to! And yes, probably in time it will become part of a subscription just like the 1911 census did, but I’m impatient!

Can I open a closed record?

Yes – if you have proof that the individual has died by way of a certified copy of their death certificate you can submit this to get the record opened. Of course you need to know where that person was at the time as you have to unlock the record before you can request to open a closed entry. This can be a bit tricky if you don’t know where the person was at the time.

I have had two requests opened this week. The first was for my paternal grandfather. I wasn’t sure if the closed entry on the page was for him or for his next eldest brother Trevor. Trevor died in WWII so I wasn’t sure if they included war dead in the updates for closed records. I figured my grandfather would either be living with his parents at home, or perhaps staying with his eldest brother who was 19 years older than him. One of my requests was denied because Trevor wasn’t at home – so it wasn’t him. My second request was granted as it turned out to be my grandfather. It showed me that he worked at the local Greengrocers, which I knew he had done, but just wasn’t sure of when – so now I know.

The other request I had granted was for my maternal grandmother. I knew she might be tricky to find. Her mother had died in 1924 when she was just five. Her stepfather – an alcoholic – had not been a kind man and her elder half sister had taken her and their little half sister out of the house. So I wasn’t sure if my grandmother would be living with her sister – who by then was married with her first child, or whether she was living in the area I knew she worked around that time. My grandmother had previously been engaged to another man before she met and married my grandfather (I have written a blog post about my grandmother’s fiancé – Oh Grandma! – What Might Have Been?) and I knew he had been “the boy next door”. I had a record of my grandmother being baptised as an adult in 1940 and her address had been given as 113 High Street, Maldon – in Essex. I knew she worked for a family with the name Balls who ran a fishmongers in the High Street so I searched for the High Street using the address search and selected one with a James Balls – as I have photographs of his wedding that my grandmother had. There were several closed records in that household and also two in the one for the household of Mrs Savill – the grandmother of my grandmother’s fiancé. I sent in a request stating my grandmother might be either at 113 or 115 High Street. I was a bit confused having received some generic responses saying my request had been denied as the individual was not at the address I was enquiring after – as they didn’t include my request in their response so I didn’t know which ones it related to. But soon after I got the access granted emails – which I was delighted about. It turned out she was in the household of her fiancé and his mother – although his record is closed despite him having died in 1969 – but I don’t have his death certificate to submit to open it. Perhaps one day I will.

My Grandmother with her fiancés mother

My Grandmother with her fiancé’s grandmother

I’m still struggling to find a few people on my husband’s side of the family. It could be because they were actively serving in the armed forces already though.

I was pleased to be able to use the register to discover the date of birth of my paternal grandfather’s father. I wrote about him in my post Five Illegitimate Sons – The Hunt for My Paternal Great Grandfather. He had no birth certificate and I’ve not found a baptism for him as yet, so it was good to get that bit of information – although whether it is right or not is another matter! It is interesting as it is the same date as his third child’s day and month of birth. Coincidence? Maybe!

Have you searched the 1939 Register? What have you found? Any revelations? Has it answered any long held questions or created more? Worth all the hype or not? Why not leave a comment and tell me about it!


6 thoughts on “1939 and all that…

  1. A minor correction, access to information prior to the launch of this service was via an FOI request to the Health Services Commission Information Centre (HSCIC – previously NHSIC), not through The National Archives.

  2. Hi Alex! Always happy to see your blog show up in my email. This sounds like a great resource for those with British roots, Good luck with your searches!

  3. Great post, sounds like exciting research. I’ve been getting notices from FindMyPast about them, figured it was similar to us waiting for the 1940 census in U.S. Makes me wish I had ancestors there in 1939! Hmmm, no ancestors left, but I’ll bet there were descendants, or cousins, around….hey, you gave me an idea! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and story.

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