1939 Register Special Newsletter

updated 16th February 2016 4.30pm



What was the 1939 Register?

How the register differs from other censuses

Why some names are crossed out & other mysteries

Why are there more transcription errors than usual?

How to search the 1939 Register

Pitfalls to avoid when searching by address?

What's the difference between locked and closed

Closed records are NOT indexed

How to work out who the hidden people were

Who should we be looking for, and why?

What aren't we seeing?


Additional articles that you may find of interest


Extending your tree beyond 1911 using the 1939 Register

How evacuation was planned in 1939

Storm clouds on the horizon

Qualifications desirable in an enumerator

Operation Pied Piper

A little bit of history

More tips



Note: if you find this guide useful you can support my work by using the links below to go to the Findmypast site of your choice:









What was the 1939 Register?

Sylvanus Percival Vivian, Registrar General for England &Wales between 1921-45, was the driving force behind the creating of the 1939 National Register. Having organised the 1921 and 1931 Censuses, and having written critically about the 1915 National Register he recognised that infrastructure for the 1941 Census could be used to create a National Register, should war break out. His preparations for the 1941 census were, therefore, intertwined with the planning of a national registration system for the purposes of conscription, which began at least as early as 1935.


However the National Register wasn't created simply as a means of identifying fit young men who could be sent abroad to die for their country - the Great War had demonstrated how important it was to effectively marshall resources on the Home Front, and sometimes you'll find out what people did during the war. For example, I discovered that before my father joined up he was an ARP stretcher-bearer.


Although the 1939 National Register covered the whole of the United Kingdom, the National Archives only holds the registers for England & Wales - so you won't find anyone who was in Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, or the Channel Islands at the time.


How the register differs from other censuses

We're used to censuses that aspire to record everyone in the land - but that wasn't what happened in 1939.


A key task of the enumerators who collected the data was to issue identity cards - and for this reason military personnel and government workers who already had ID cards are unlikely to be recorded in Register. According to the National Archives (TNA) research guide:


The Register was not meant to record members of the armed forces and the records do not feature:



However, the records do include:



Other key differences compared to the censuses are that relationships are not shown, middle names are rarely shown in full, and places of birth are not listed. However, precise dates of birth are given, and this information might well save us the cost of buying a birth certificate, especially for our more distant relatives.


Tip: birthdates are not always recorded correctly - I have two great-aunts who were twins, but if you relied on what the enumerators wrote down (they were different enumerators because both of the sisters had married before 1939) you would think they had been born a month apart. I've no idea whether the mistake was made by the husband or the enumerator - but it certainly wasn't the transcriber.


Why some names are crossed out & other mysteries

The 1939 Register was a working document - unlike censuses, which were checked, analysed, and archived, the National Register was updated as changes occurred. For example, if a woman married she would normally adopt her husband's surname - and if this occurred after 29th September 1939 a new identity card had to be issued.


Tip: the use of identity cards didn't end when the war was over - they continued in use until 1952.


When the National Health Service was founded in 1948 the National Register was used as the basis of the NHS Central Register, and this continued in to the early 1990s. As a result many name changes were recorded as the result of marriages (and divorces) that took place in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. There may even be some later changes - but I haven't seen any yet.


Here's an example of a name change on marriage:



Crown Copyright Image reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives, London, England and Findmypast


This tells us that May E Lawson became Dalrymple on her first marriage (which was in 1951), and Noon on her second marriage in 1955. She died in 1985, but the record would be open in any case as she was born in 1904, which is more than 100 years ago.


Changes weren't made immediately - there was usually a delay - and in the example above you can see the change of name to Dalrymple seems not to have been recorded until early 1955, by which time Mrs Dalrymple (nee Lawson) was well on her way to marrying again - she married Frederick E Noon in the third quarter of that year.


This means that where a date is shown all you can conclude is that the event must have happened prior to that date. You are NOT seeing the date on which the person married or divorced.


Tip: information in the same colour ink and handwriting is likely to have been entered at the same time - without this clue I might have associated the 1955 date with the second marriage.


If there is a change of surname recorded you can usually search using either surname. Unusually May E Noon has only been indexed under her final surname, possibly because it's really hard to read her original surname (Lawson). But you're more likely to see a search result that looks like this one:



That's my mum! Note that the original surname - the maiden surname in this case - is shown in parentheses.


Why are there more transcription errors than usual?

If you're used to just typing in names and seeing results pop-up you might be frustrated by the number of transcription errors. Fortunately it's unlikely that they'll prevent you finding the right records because there are so many different ways of searching - and anyway, most transcription errors can be overcome by the judicious use of wildcards. But it's important to understand just why there are more errors than usual.


First of all, there was a war on - the enumerators don't seem to have been as careful with their handwriting as one would have liked. The fact that they were using fountain pens probably didn't help - there tends to be too much ink, so that some of the details disappears into a blob. And the transcribers have had to try to interpret names that have been crossed through - as if their task wasn't already challenging enough!


However the biggest challenge for the transcribers was the result of privacy concerns - these records were not due to be opened until 2040, by which time everyone recorded would have been over 100 years old. This is why we could initially only see records for people who were born over 100 years ago, or whose death had been recorded in the register (some other records have since been opened up for people who are known to have died).


This meant that the transcribers weren't given an entire page to work with - instead the page was divided into columns of data. No one transcriber would have an entire entry for an individual, making it much more difficult to interpret what they could see.


I'm never one to criticise transcribers because it's not a job I would want to do, even though (and, perhaps, because) I'd be very good at it - but in this instance the challenges were greater than usual, and we have to remember that what we see isn't what they saw.


How to search the 1939 Register

Fortunately, despite the transcription errors, the chances of picking the wrong household in 1939 are extremely low, partly because you're much more likely to know the date of birth of a parent or grandparent (and the chances of there being two people with exactly the same name born on precisely the same day are pretty low), but also because before you use any of your precious credits you'll get to see a preview that looks something like this:



There are two ways to search - you can search for a person, or you can search for an address. But most of the time you'll want to search for a person, because you can include location information a person search if you want:




As you can see, the Search page looks very similar to the page we see when we search the 1911 Census at Findmypast, but with the addition of the Birthday field. All of the fields are optional, even the name - so you can start with a very broad search and narrow down by adding more information.


Tip: less is more when it comes to searching - the less information you enter on the Search form, the more results you'll get! Should you get too many results you can always add more information and try again.


Note that there are boxes on the form for the National Archives references - the piece number, and the item number. I suggest you record these for the households you purchase as they'll provide a quick way of finding the record again. And who knows, perhaps one day we'll add the 1939 Register to the list of censuses supported by LostCousins?


When you search by address there are far fewer boxes on the form:




I suspect that the address search will be used mainly by people who want to find out who was living in 'their' house in 1939, or who want to find out information about their neighbours. If I have some credits left over I'm certainly going to look at the house where I grew up - all the neighbours must be well over 100 by now (some of them seemed it at the time, though I expect they were younger than I am now!).


For more information about searching please check out the Findmypast blog (you don't need to be a current subscriber).


Pitfalls to avoid when searching by address

Searching by address sounds simple, but there are some complicating factors that you need to be aware of:



What's the difference between locked and closed

Locked households are households you haven't viewed before; unlocking a household allows you to see the open records in that household.


Closed records exist in both locked and unlocked households - they are records that you can't see because the person is recorded as having been born less than 100 years ago, and their death has not been confirmed. Closed records can usually be opened by submitting a death certificate, but you need to know where the individual was living in 1939.


Closed records are NOT indexed

If a record is closed then you won't find that person in the index, no matter how you search. For example, when the register first launched in November my mother was not in the index, and because she had been evacuated I didn't know where she was living.


Fortunately Findmypast opened an additional 2.5 million records in December, having used a sophisticated algorithm to match death index entries against register entries - this was possible because the death indexes from 1969 onwards include the individual's date of birth.


There are still many records which are closed, even though the person is now deceased - unfortunately the National Archives, who hold the registers, and have ultimate responsibility for deciding which records can be opened, have to take a conservative approach to avoid breaching the privacy of living people.


However if you can work out where someone was living, and have their death certificate, it will usualy be possible to open the record. At launch about 28 million records were open, out of 41 million - now there are 30.6 million open records, and thousands more are opened every week.


How to work out who the hidden people were

When you view the handwritten images you see an entire page - other than the closed records, which are blanked out. Usually the inhabitants of a household are listed in the same way that they would be on a census, starting the father and continuing with the mother and the children in descending order of age; lodgers and visitors are likely to be at the end.


You won't always be able to see where one household ends and the next begins, but you can easily work it out from the way in which the entries are numbered. Remember, you know how many open and how many closed records there are in a household from the transcription.


This means that in most cases you'll be able to work out whose records are hidden, by combing what you can see or deduce with your own knowledge of the family.


Tip: in a few cases you might see a small part of a closed record - perhaps the descender from a letter 'y', 'g', 'p', or 'j'. The position of the descender may help to confirm that the hidden person was named 'Mary', or 'George'.


Who should we be looking for, and why?

Often the most interesting revelations are going to come from researching people who aren't close relatives. For example, I discovered one of my Dad's cousins living with a man who wasn't her husband, and that solved several mysteries for me. It also indirectly enabled me to identify several cousins who are still living - so much from just one household!


I also found it interesting looking at neighbours, some of whom I remembered from my childhood in the 1950s - and I discovered a lot that I hadn't known about a family friend who my mother had worked with during the War.


How much you learn will depend not so much on how much you already know, but on how open you are to making new discoveries - indeed, the more you know, the easier it will be to expand your search outwards, to more distant relatives. What you find in the register won't be an end in itself, but a gateway to yet more information - once you know precisely when someone was born it's usually easy to find their death (assuming they died between Q3 1969 and 2007), and that makes it easier to fill in the gaps in between.


What aren't we seeing?

A page from one of the registers


This rather fuzzy photo is the only known image of the right hand side of a register - we normally only see the left-hand page and the first column of the right-hand page. I grabbed this shot from a video on the Findmypast blog.


I have a copy of my own record from the NHS Central Register, from which I've been able to deduce that many, perhaps most, of the notes relate to people moving from one NHS area to another. (I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has also obtained a copy of their index entry.)


We're probably not missing out on very much by not seeing that right-hand page - frustrating as it is not to be able to see it!


Track down evacuees using LostCousins

The evacuation of millions of British schoolchildren during World War 2 will have had a lasting effect, not only on their lives, but also on the lives of the families with whom they were billeted. Having found my mother on the 1939 Register I wondered how feasible it would be to track down members of the family she lived with - and realised that one way of doing this would be to use the My Ancestors page....


Whilst you can't enter people from the 1939 Register on your My Ancestors page (at least, not at the moment), many of them will also have been recorded on the 1911 Census. I've therefore created a new category in the Relationship or category dropdown menu - WW2 evacuation - so that I and other members can search for relatives of the people who looked after the evacuees in our families during the war.


Here's the first ever entry using this new category:



I'll let you know if I get a match! In the meantime, why not see who you can find?


Extending your tree beyond 1911 using the 1939 Register

If your family comes from England or Wales, and you have either a Findmypast.co.uk or Ancestry.co.uk subscription, you'll not only have access to fully transcribed GRO birth, marriage, and death indexes but also to the complete England & Wales 1911 Census. By combining these two resources you'll probably find that you can add dozens of new relatives to your family tree - without spending a penny on certificates!


Here's how I generally go about it:


(1) Where there are married couples on the 1911 Census and the wife is of child-bearing age (typically up to 47) I search the birth indexes for children born to the couple using the family surname and mother's maiden name. The rarer the surnames the more confident I can be about identifying the entries, especially if I also take into account the choice of forenames, the timing of the births, and the districts where the births were registered.


Tip: even if the surnames aren't particularly rare, the surname combination might be - a search for marriages where the bride and groom have the same surnames will help you gauge how likely it is that the births you've found belong to your couple.


(2) I then check to see whether I can identify marriages involving relatives who were single in 1911. This is generally only possible when the surnames are fairly uncommon (but see below).


(3) Having identified these post-1911 marriages, or possible marriages, I look in the birth indexes for children born to the couple using the technique described in (1) above. Sometimes the choice of forenames will help to confirm whether or not I've found the right marriage.


(4) I next look for the deaths of the couples whose children I've been seeking. If the precise date of birth is included in the death indexes, as it is for later entries, this often helps to confirm not only that I've found the right death entry, but also - in the case of a female relative - that I've found the right marriage. Even if I don't know exactly when my relative was born, the quarter in which the birth was registered defines a 19 week window (remember that births can be registered up to 6 weeks after the event). Why does this work best for female relatives? Because they will have changed their surname on marriage, so their birth will be registered in one name and the death in another - and there will be a marriage that links the two.


Tip: probate calendars can also provide useful clues - often one of the children, or the surviving spouse, will be named as executor or administrator. You can search the calendars from 1858-1966 at Ancestry, or from 1858-1959 at Findmypast; if you don't have access to either of these sites, or want to search for more recent wills, you'll need to use the free Probate Service.


(5) Now I start on the next generation, the children who were recorded in 1911 or whose births I have been able to identify as belonging to my tree. I look for both marriages and deaths, because if I find the death of a female relative recorded under her maiden name, this usually indicates that she didn't marry, and even for a male relative the place of death might help to determine whether a marriage I've found in an unexpected part of the country.


(6) Having identified marriages I then look in the birth indexes for children born to those marriages - and continue this process until either I reach the present day, or I get to a point where I can't tell with reasonable certainty which entries relate to my relatives. Mind you, when it comes to more recent generations there are all sorts of additional sources of information - including social networking sites, Google, searches of the electoral roll (see the next article) or even the phone book (not everyone is ex-directory).


Here are some key dates to bear in mind when searching:


2nd April 1911 - Census Day


1st July 1911 - from this date the mother's maiden name was included in the birth indexes


1st January 1912 - the surname of the spouse was included in the marriage indexes


1st January 1966 - from this date the first two forenames are shown in full in the birth indexes


1st April 1969 - the precise date of birth was included in the death indexes and the first two forenames were shown in full


During the 20th century middle names are more consistent than they were in the 19th century - there is less of a tendency for them to appear or disappear between birth, marriage, and death. Unfortunately, for more than half a century after 1910 only the first forename was shown in full in the birth and death indexes, and the marriage indexes only show one forename for the whole period after 1910 - so a perfect match on the second forename is only possible if the relative was born before 1911 and died after March 1969.


What can you hope to achieve by following the techniques I've described? In my case I was able to extend some lines forward by as many as four generations, although three is more typical. In the process I added hundreds of 20th century relatives to my family tree, the majority of whom were still living.


Since the 1939 Register was released I've been able to extend my tree further by confirming that many of the marriages I'd noted as possible marriages did indeed involve my relatives (the fact that precise birthdates are given is a really big help).


One of the best things about the 1939 Register is the way that it continued to be used after the War - and so the surnames of many women were updated to reflect marriages (and divorces) that took place in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s or even later. This makes the 1939 Register more useful than a static census, and since it was released I've added dozens more relatives to my tree, most of whom must still be living.


Note: there will often be other resources that you can draw upon, including parish registers (some online collections extended beyond 1911), newspaper announcements (iannounce

 is good for recent events, the British Newspaper Archive - also at Findmypast - for early 20th century events). Burials recorded at Deceased Online are another great source (for example, there may be other family members in the same grave). Historic Phone Directories up to 1984 are online at Ancestry. Ancestry and Findmypast each have historic Electoral Rolls - Findmypast covers much of the country, but Ancestry is best for London.


How evacuation was planned in 1939

In 1939 each area of the country was assigned one of three roles:



I was fortunate to find a document online at the HistPop website which details which areas came into which category, and I suspect many of you will find it very interesting to look up the areas where your family lived. It's about 12 pages long - use the Previous Page and Next Page links at the bottom to navigate; my understanding is that areas not specifically mentioned were Reception areas.


Of course, trying to predict which parts of the country would be safe from the Luftwaffe wasn't a precise science - one member wrote to tell me that his family moved "out of the frying pan into the fire" when they relocated!


Storm clouds on the horizon

When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 it was a sad day, but it wasn't a surprise. You probably remember that when I wrote about Operation Pied Piper last weekend I mentioned that evacuation forms were circulated to parents as early as May 1939, and it turns out that plans for the issue of identity cards were being formulated as early as 1st December 1938, when the General Register Office circulated a memorandum to Registrars of Births and deaths about:


"proceeding immediately with certain of the preparations for the 1941 Census, as a means of providing for the institution of a National Register at very short notice, should a national emergency arise."


Qualifications desirable in an enumerator

When a further memorandum went out from the General Register Office on 6th January 1939 it stated that:





When you've seen as many pages from the National Register as I have, you'll know that the enumerators didn't always live up to those high standards - even handwriting that appears neat can be hard to read if the letters are written inconsistently, or confusingly.


The fact that subsequent amendments to surnames were made in block capitals suggests that even at the time the handwriting was causing problems.


Operation Pied Piper

With the threat of war looming, the British Government prepared plans for mass evacuation. During WW1 Germany had bombed London and other targets using Zeppelin airships (you can read more about it here), but now the enemy had modern bombers (over 1000 were operational by September 1939), and the bombing of Guernica  in 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, had demonstrated the devastation that could be wrought. Preparations started long before the war: this form headed Government Evacuation Scheme is dated May 1939 - note that mothers were asked if they wanted to go with their children.


Operation Pied Piper went into action on 1st September 1939, two days before Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister made his momentous radio broadcast to the nation:


"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would  exist between us.


"I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany."


http://www.lostcousins.com/newsletters2/nov15news_files/image007.jpgChildren had assembled in school playgrounds on the morning of 1st September, each with a luggage tag attached to their coat, and carrying bare necessities: their gas mask, underwear, pyjamas or nightdress, plimsolls, toothbrush, comb, soap, and a face flannel. Over half a million children were evacuated from London alone during September, and my mother - then 13 years old - appears to have been one of them, because on Registration Day (29th September) she wasn't at home with my grandparents.


Over the course of just three days around 1.5 million mothers and children were sent from towns and cities into the countryside, mostly by train - you might this Southern Railways poster interesting. However, because bombing raids on cities didn't materialise in the first few months of the war, many children went back home - over half had returned by January 1940, despite Government warnings (I believe my mother was one of them).


There were further waves of evacuation during 1940, and my mother's school was evacuated toFinnamore Wood Camp, Marlow, Buckinghamshire on 22nd April - you can see a photo here which shows some of the schoolgirls. My mother wasn't amongst them, however - my grandmother wouldn't allow her to leave home again - and so my mother left school and spent the duration supporting the war effort, working at the nearby Ship Carbon factory, which made carbon rods for cinema projectors and searchlights.


A smaller number of children were evacuated overseas, a story told in the book Out of Harm's Way, written by an evacuee - but this programme came to end when the SS City of Benares was sunk in September 1940, killing most of the children on board. However some children were evacuated privately even after this incident.


Area letter codes

In 1939 the country was divided into more than 1400 administrative areas, each of which was assigned a three letter code, such as  CJL for Bromley in Kent and ZDJ for Portmadoc in Caernarvonshire (larger areas may have had more than one code, in which case the code in the table is the first in the block). When you find one of your relatives you'll see that a fourth letter has been appended to the end - this specifies the enumeration district.


You will find a table of all the codes and areas here.


A little bit of history

When, in February 2007, I asked to inspect the 1939 Register under the Freedom of Information Act I was rebuffed - it's covered by the 1920 Census Act, they claimed. Absolute rubbish, but for a while they got away with it.


Eventually, thanks to the efforts of Guy Etchells and others, it was agreed to provide information from the Register, subject to a fee of 42 per household (which wasn't refundable under any circumstances). Then, in March 2014, Findmypast announced that they had signed a deal with the National Archives which would see the register becoming available online within 2 years.


More tips (some duplicate tips mentioned above)


    Use the Advanced search - it'll save you time

    Middle names are not shown, only initials (even though it would appear that full middle names were recorded on the original household schedules)

    Closed records are NOT indexed, so will not show up in searches, nor will people who were in army barracks or similar institutions

    If you don't have a subscription you'll be asked if you want to 'unlock' the record - this is the point at which the 60 credits are deducted; in return you get to see a transcription of the 'open' entries in the household, and the image of the register page

    The register pages are like the enumerators' summaries that we see for the censuses up to 1901 - the entries have been copied from the schedules completed by the householders, so we don't get to see our ancestors' handwriting (on the other hand we see a whole page of entries, up to 44 - but on average 14 of these will be closed at launch)

    The references displayed are in this format
Ref: RG101/1100C/019/36 Letter Code: CCVZ 
where RG101 is the National Archives reference for the 1939 Register (this doesn't change)
1100C is the piece number
019 is the item number (it identifies a specific page but I couldn't see the number in the image)
36 is the line number on the page - again it's not shown, but you can count down
The Letter Code refers to the area - there's a guide to these codes in the TNA blog, and a list of codes here

    You're also given the Schedule Number and Schedule Sub-Number but can't search using this information; people in the same household have the same Schedule Number (the Sub-Number is the line on the Schedule, usually 1,2,3,4 etc)

    Make a note of the references - they'll enable you to find the page again instantly (and you never know, one day we might use these records at LostCousins!)

    National Registration Day was 29th September 1939, but someone who is listed may not have arrived until the next day (assuming they were not registered elsewhere)

    'Unpaid DD' means 'Unpaid domestic duties'

    To open a closed record by uploading a death certificate start from the household transcription, but DON'T click Check if you can open a closed entry. Instead click Update the record, and choose  Ask us to open a closed record from the drop down menu. You must have a 12 month Britain or World subscription to be able to do this.

    Take a look at this blog entry, posted by Findmypast on 3rd November


 Unexpected bonuses


    The register was a working document - though it was created in 1939 it was amended and annotated as people moved, married, and died; most of the annotations are on the right-hand page, where we can't see them, but there are some on the left-hand page (see below for a guide to abbreviations)

    Sometimes a woman's surname will have been crossed out and another surname written in - this is usually a name change on marriage; in the Search results the surname in 1939 will appear in brackets; there  are more than two surnames all but the most recent will be in brackets

    In these cases you can search on any of the surname (you don't have to tick the surname variants box), but the entry you want probably  won't be at the top of the search results because of the way they are sorted

    If you're very lucky you may find someone whose name changed on adoption (they would have had to be adopted after the creation of the register, otherwise you wouldn't see the birth name)

    On the right hand side of the register you can sometimes see a note such as 'ARP warden'

    You might see an alias recorded, for example  one 'Harry' was noted as 'o/w Henry'

    Occasionally the date of death is recorded on the right hand page - check it against the GRO indexes to make sure

    My aunt's year of birth was erroneously transcribed (by the enumerator) as '76' rather than '16' which meant her record was open when it should have been closed - were she still with us she would have been absolutely delighted!

    Sometimes you'll see a note such as "See page 14"; in this case there will usually be an arrow to the left or right of the image - click the arrow to see the other record

    When there isn't an arrow you are likely to find the individual listed twice in the Search results; if so you'll have to pay to access the second page (but it might be worth asking for a refund)

    If your relative was in an institution you should be able to see all of the pages relating to that institution - click the left and right arrows


Interpreting the notation


The modern day NHS computer system still uses some of the forms - you can find detailed guidance here, but most of it isn't relevant and these notes probably tell you all you need to know:


    Dates shown are usually not the date of the event, but seem to be the date of the update (or possibly the date on the form that triggered the update)

    CR283 is a form that is used when there is a Change of Surname, Forename, or Date of Birth (most changes will be surname changes, of course)

    NEL probably stands for "North East London"; many other three letter codes can be interpreted by referring to this table

    IC or I/C almost certainly stands for Identity Card

    See Con Sheet means "see continuation sheet" (unfortunately the continuation sheets don't seem to be available)