1939 – Outbreak of War and the need for a National Register
As the winter of 1938 approached Britain prepared itself for the possibility of war with Germany. Even though Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain famously returned from Germany on 30 September 1938 brandishing a piece of paper, and declaring ‘peace for our time’, it was soon clear that Germany had no intention to abide by the terms of the Munich Agreement. So the Government proposed various measures in the House of Commons, including the need for a National Register and Identity Card system, that would be needed to prove identity, control armed forces call up, and for the administration of ration cards, should Britain go to war. It was only the second time that Britain has used a National Register – the first time being in 1915, in similar circumstances, although that register was not used for rationing or identity cards.
Sir John Anderson, Lord Privy Seal became a member of Neville Chamberlain’s cabinet in October 1938, becoming responsible for various civil defence matters including Air Raid Precautions and earned the nickname ‘Home Front Prime Minister’. On 6th December 1938 he discussed, in the House of Commons, the taking of a National Register should Britain go to war:
“Now I come to the arrangements which, as I told the House last week, are to be made now in order to facilitate the compilation of a complete National Register, if that should ever become necessary in time of emergency. For that purpose we are going to use, as I told the House, the ordinary machinery of the Census, adapted as may be required. Roughly speaking, there will have to be some 50,000 enumerators, the sort of people who are engaged for a Census, working under the supervision of the local registrars. Instructions to these people have to be prepared and great progress has already been made with the drafting of those instructions. Forms will have to be prepared, to be held in readiness, and they will be printed in the necessary numbers and held available. I said the other day that the cost of doing that would be from £6,000 to £7,000. I find that that figure was for England and Wales. The total cost for the whole country will be about £10,000.
If that Register ever has to be made, the procedure will differ from the ordinary Census procedure in one respect only. The forms will be distributed as in the case of the Census, and will be collected by the enumerators after an interval of two or three days, but before going away with the forms from the household the enumerator will, in the case of the National Register, have to deliver some form of document, an identity card or a registration certificate or something of the kind, which will be evidence to the individual of his inclusion in the Register. Substantially, apart from that one difference, the procedure would be the same as in the taking of the Census, though of course the forms used for recording the necessary particulars would be those appropriate to the National Register. I have given an indication of the additional cost involved in making these preparations. If a Register of this kind had to be completed in any circumstances, the total cost would probably be in the region of £250,000.”
The 1939 Register is taken on 29th September 1939
Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 following Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. The 1939 Register was taken on 29 September 1939, and the details of 41 million people were recorded, within weeks of the outbreak of World War II. 65,000 enumerators visited every house in 1939 and had considerable extra work compared to the normal 10 yearly census as they had to complete and distribute identity cards there and then. The National Register of 1939 came to be known as the ‘Wartime Domesday Book’.
The importance of the 1939 Register
For family historians the 1939 Register is of immense importance. The 1941 Census was not taken due to the war (and the fact that the 1939 Register had already been taken) and the 1931 Census was destroyed in a fire in the Second World War. So the 1939 Register bridges a gap between the 1921 Census (due to be released in January 2022) and the 1951 Census. The 1939 Register online was released on 2nd November 2015.
The information contained in the 1939 Register
The 1939 National Register includes information on the civilian population (including armed forces on leave) of England and Wales. The information on the 39 Register includes most information found on a census but excluding place of birth. This is the information that will be found on the 1939 Register:
Role (for institutions i.e. officer, visitor, servant, patient, inmate)
Date of Birth
It is possible that the person or relative you are searching for cannot be found in this National ID Register of 1939. Census rules mean that this register is also subject to the 100 year rule on possible living persons. So if your relative was born within the last 100 years they may have had their records redacted i.e. edited out. The Register is being constantly updated and over 5m extra records have been unlocked since the 1939 Register was first launched. If the deceased relative you are searching for is still missing from the register you can apply to have the details unlocked. If you can provide verification of someone’s death (i.e. with a death certificate) then annual subscribers of FindmyPast.co.uk can request a check of the closed records free of charge. Non findmypast subscribers can apply to the National Archives (the official archive of the UK government and the holder of many official national registers and registry records) to have a closed record search using a Freedom of Information request form. There is a charge for this service.
1939 Register Cost & Search
If you hold a 12 month subscription (either Britain or World) with Find My Past then you will have access to the 1939 Register free. Other users will need to buy credits to view the 1939 census register – currently 60 credits cost £6.95 (as at Feb 2017) and will give access to one household record on the register (other credit combinations are available). If you would like to make a search of the 1939 Register use the following link: