Findmypast calls the 1939 Register "one of the most important documents in 20th century Britain”
For many researchers this 1939 record is a census with many valuable additions. It is especially important because there are no surviving census records for 1931 and 1941 as a result of the war. On 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland and the path to war was underway. On 29 September, National Registration Day was undertaken. Enumerators collected key details from 41 million people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They issued identity cards, which were required until 1952. The cards allowed official tracking of births, marriages and deaths, as well as people’s movements over the years. It is now available on Findmypast, for which State Library has a subscription, and is free onsite to the public.
How the 1939 Register differs from censuses
The Register does not include military personnel, unless they were on leave, or civilians on military bases. Places of birth and relationships are not included, full middle names are included only rarely, but dates of birth (not always correct) are provided. Censuses were a one day event, but information was updated during the course of the identity card regulation until 1952. If a woman was single before 1939, it may show her married name after that date. A change of occupation was also noted. For example, the entry for Winston Leonard S Churchill was updated to show his progression in 1940 from First Lord of the Admiralty to Prime Minister.
An example of a search
Search the register by name, street or occupation. Each record includes the names of all inhabitants at each address, their date of birth, marital status and occupation.
There are a few steps in searching for our example, Blanche Porritt, and what happened to her.
Use minimal information and variant options. As you key the words, help is provided. For example, typing Yorkshire prompts you to select one of the Ridings. Note the code, MB for Pontefract. Findmypast has provided an explanation of codes at Understanding 1939 Registration Districts. Pontefract is a municipal borough.
After her divorce from Ernest Porritt, Blanche remarried. A search of www.freebmd.org.uk shows that she married Edward Andrews in the December quarter of 1951. It had to be before the end of 1952 when the identity card regulation ended. Two records of children are closed. We can detect in the right column that one, at least, was at school, as the word is only partially obscured.
Locked and closed records
Locked households are households not yet viewed. Unlock a household to see the open records in it.
Closed records may appear in locked or unlocked records. They are not indexed and are blacked out because the person was born less than 100 years ago. There is provision for opening a closed record where there is proof of death. It is also possible to close a record.
These are numerous and may also affect a search for a place. Truncate words and use wild cards (asterisk *) and basic information to take this into account. Tick available variant options. For example, in order to find out who was staying at the Berkley Hotel, Piccadilly, I needed to allow for the possibility ‘Piccadilley’. The Ritz Hotel records are closed.
The address search provides a way to find out about neighbours and family in the local area, an institution or household. Some street names, such as Station Street, can be very common, and so easily confused. More precise searching may be needed. It is also possible to use the arrows to the right and left of the screen of the original image to move around and find neighbourhood names and addresses.
The records available on Findmypast are only for England and Wales, not The Isle of Man, Channel Islands, Scotland or Northern Ireland. For the 1939 Scottish records see the National Records of Scotland’s National Registration Research Guide.
Check the National Archives UK Research guide as well as the help at the Findmypast site, which includes a video guide. There are some very useful tips at Lost Cousins 1939 Register Special. See the Stories form the eve of war – a gallery of accounts submitted by the public, which you can read and to which you may contribute. Staff at State Library can advise you about searching this database and others. For those unable to come to State Library, use the Ask us service to obtain family information from the 1939 Register. The 1921 census will not be available until 2022: this is a big leap from the 1911 census, and the 1939 Register provides a great opportunity to find your family on the eve of war.
Stephanie Ryan, Senior Librarian
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