The recent release of the 1939 Register has brought fresh excitement to British researchers. This is one of the most important documents created for twentieth century British research, because the 1931 census was destroyed during the war, and the 1941 census was never taken. I was going to write earlier this week about this but I am glad that I did not as search techniques and results presented have changed. I will provide some background information, an introduction on how to search the records and some case studies.
In December 1938 it was announced that if Great Britain went to war then there would be a National Register. Following the declaration of war of 3 September 1939 the National Registration Day was set as 29 September 1939. For those who have seen the PBS show Home Fires this event was shown in one of the early episodes. Every civilian was to be recorded, with forms being issued to over 41 million people throughout Great Britain and Northern Ireland, though only the records for England and Wales have been released. Completion of the cards resulted in the issuing of national identity cards which were required to be carried at all times up to 1952, ration books, and later were used for establishing the National Health Service. The use of this record for the National Health Service is why you will see recorded the married surname of many women marrying later, and also why some people younger than age 100 are not hidden in the records, their deaths having been recorded up to 1991 in the records. If you can document that someone has died then records currently closed can be opened up.
How to access. The 1939 Register has been released online by FindMyPast in partnership with The National Archives. The Register consists of over 7,000 volumes with over 1,200,000 pages providing names, dates of birth, addresses, marital status, occupations, and sometimes additional comments for over 41,000,000 people. FindMyPast claims a 98% accuracy rate in transcription, so my ancestors must fall into that 2%, with more on this later.
FindMyPast provides additional background information, including a nice short U-Tube video about the Register, and a getting started guide on their website, though part of this is already out of date.
Anyone can do a search in the 1939 Register for free on FindMyPast, but to unlock the images you will need to purchase credits (300 credits unlocks 5 households). The purchasing of credits applies whether you are a subscriber or not. Providing you use the same registration email each time, then you will not have to pay to view the register pages in the future.
Search Options – You can do a simple search on first and last name; birth year and where they were in 1939. This might work for you but the advanced search screen opens up a great number of options. You can search on First and Last names, with variants; birth year, with optional range of years; date and month of birth; place keyword; sex; occupation; marital status; street; borough / district filter; county filter; country filter; first and last name of other household member; plus TNA reference. If you scroll down the search screen you will find explanations of these fields and these should definitely be read if you don’t find who you are looking for.
Example – Walter Crowhurst – gg-grandfather
Let’s provide some examples. We will start with a search for Walter Crowhurst, born 1859 – my gg-grandfather. Because of the age there are only two options and we choose the one in Strood R.D. in Kent. The preview screen shows Walter Crowhurst born in 1859, in a house with two other people. There are no closed entries in this household, implying that the other two people are either known to be deceased or would be over 100 years old. To see all the details the household needs to be unlocked. This is where you need to register and purchase credits (a subscription to FindMyPast is separate and not required).
Unlocking the household shows us that Walter Crowhurst was born 12 Sept 1859 is a pensioner, and is living with two of his sons: Victor James Crowhurst, born 21 Jun 1896 a farm labourer; and John Lenard Crowhurst born 13 Sep 1898 a Labourer. The new information for me is that beside John Lenard’s name we have in the comments section – Pensioner Gunner 21 years in Royal Artillery with the number NC1031520.
Given his age this suggests that he probably served during World War One but will not likely show up in any of the normal WWI records because he continued to serve after the war, and thus his records will still be at the Ministry of Defence. Walter’s address is given as Rose Cottage, Upper Halling, with no street being provided. It is common for houses in Britain to have names and so care is needed if an address search is performed.
Scrolling down the screen on the opened results page you will find a map highlighting where the house is located. You can see the house on the 1888-1913 Ordnance Survey six inch map, or the 1937-1961 Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 map. This can give you an indication of how the neighborhood has changed over time, though in this example it has not changed much.
Example – James Croudace – g-grandfather
Let’s search for James Croudace my great-grandfather born according to the 1939 Register on 10 Nov 1884 but this is actually incorrect because his birth certificate shows that he was born on 7 Nov 1884. This example highlights the care needed with trying to search using the dates of birth. James is listed as a widow and working as a general labourer. Note that the address is shown on this image as 29 ditto, with no indication above showing what street is. On the preview page the address is shown as 29 West Road, Newcastle-upon-Tyne CB, Northumberland, England. So be careful that you have collected all the information that the record provides as it may not all be on the actual image.
No relationship is known to any of the other people in the rest of the household but it is a good example of what additional information you may find. Annie Graham born 17 Feb 1910, probable wife of Joseph Graham is overwritten in green ink to show a new married surname of Bickerdyke, while off to the side also in green is a dated entry 26-2-69 showing CR283 New, actually this is the date of her new marriage.
Example – Richard and Jean Finnigan – grand-parents
The above examples were easy to find. Let’s see how creative you might have to get. I was looking for Richard Finnigan born 22 Sep 1904 but he was not found in the search because of a FindMyPast transcription error on the month, and Richard giving a wrong year of birth, plus no Finnigan’s showing up on the results page. I did a search for Jean using date of birth and again no Finnigan matches. I recalled that the family moved in the 1930s as part of a slum clearance to Aldwick road in Newcastle-upon-Tyne so I did a search – but there were no Finnigan’s on the street. The search was repeated just for the street name, and there were multiple results screens but one potential Richard and one potential Jean. Now when I first did the search the TNA reference number was given and you could search on that number to reduce the number of potentials. It showed the Richard and Jean to be on the same page of results, with one closed record. I wish the TNA reference option was returned because it gave me enough encouragement to think I had the correct family in spite of the errors.
I paid to unlock the record and it was the correct family – Richard + Jean + 4 closed records (not 1as the search screen suggested). So why was the family so difficult to find? In the FindMyPast index their surname was listed as ~??? – try finding that surname on a search, though it is readable as Finnigan. Richard is employed as a Brass Foundry labourer in the heavy works, and in the comment field listed as an ARP Warden, the first documentation I have of this family story. The other confirmation I have that I have the correct family is that Richard’s middle name – Nicholson – has been added in green ink.
Example – Reginald Ernest Milner and Jane Milner- grandparents
My grandfather Reginald Ernest Milner, born 6 August 1904, plus his wife Jane Milner (nee Croudace) born 22 January 1909 along with my father James B.W. Milner born 4 October 1929 (died 1980), plus two closed brothers are all missing an unaccounted for in the 1939 Register. I have tried all sorts of combinations of names, dates and no names but with no luck so far. I think this family may fall foul of one of the exceptions in that military families are not included and I suspect Reginald was in the Army reserves and may already have been called up. My understanding is if he was in the army he would not be in the Register, but does that mean his family was not either? I include this family in the blog to point out that not everyone is easy to locate and therefore you have to think about why not. Is it an indexing problem, missing information or do they meet one of the exceptions. Unlike the Finnigan I am not sure where this family was in September 1939 – Mill Lane, Newcastle; farming in Essex; visiting family in Kent; at an army base in Yorkshire. No matter I can’t find the family anywhere.
Summary – For those with ancestors or relatives still in England or Wales in 1939 you should be looking at this resource. You can do free searching in the indexes, but you will have to pay to see the results. It will provide birth dates, which you may or may not have already, give locations and occupations, and may provide additional information.