The 1939 Register

Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2021), Volume 29

By Fiona Fitzsimons

After 1923 Britain became the main destination for Irish emigrants. Irish migration to the US declined with emigrant remittances, while the new quota system discouraged travel. Ireland’s proximity to Britain, on the other hand, allowed for a cheaper, shorter journey, and it was easier to return ‘home’ for a visit. The number of Irish immigrants in Britain dipped in the Depression years (1930–6), but by 1937 it had returned to pre-1930 levels of c. 25,000 per year.

The only complete surviving record of the UK’s civilian population between 1921 and 1951 is the 1939 Register. This source documents the Irish community in Britain, estimated at over half a million, at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The Register was taken on 29 September 1939 to plan the logistics of the coming war. The British government needed current population statistics to introduce identity cards and, after 1 January 1940, ration books. Information was also used to administer conscription, to direct the workforce, and to monitor and control the movement of the population caused by military mobilisation and mass evacuation.

The General Registrar’s Office, responsible for the census, took the Register. Data were captured by registration districts, with slight adjustments to local government boundaries, in anticipation of the local authorities’ role in rationing. Forms were distributed to every household in advance. In the days after registration night, enumerators called from house to house to collect the forms; they interviewed the householders to verify the evidence recorded and issued national identity cards on the spot. The data were compiled into enumeration books, the baseline of the national registration system.

The data captured included the name, date of birth, address, marital status and occupation of every person in a household. The information was similar to the census but differed in specifics: the full name rather than only the initials of any person living in an institution (prison, asylum or hospital) was recorded; registrants were not asked where they were born or about relationships within households; they were asked for very precise information about what they did for a living. General terms used in the census, such as ‘foreman’, ‘mill-hand’, ‘railway employee’, ‘farmer’ or ‘doctor’ weren’t acceptable. Registrants were asked for details of their trade, manufacture, the type of agriculture or the branch of their profession. As well as questions on occupation, registrants were asked about any ‘supplemental duties’ they might have—as a fire warden or in the naval reserve, for example—or whether they had other occupational skills that might be useful to the war effort.

Above: Detail from Ford Madox Brown’s Work (1865), depicting Irish navvies. (Manchester Art Gallery)

Unlike a census or civil records, the 1939 Register was intended to be a ‘dynamic source’; it was continuously updated throughout the war, to record deaths and changes of name (marriage, divorce, adoption). Changes of name were made in the national register, while changes of address were only recorded at local level. After 1948 the Register became the baseline of the National Health Service registration system and remained in use until 1991. Almost all changes of name between 1939 and 1991 are recorded, so that it’s possible to trace the name of any woman who married or remarried, even if she was an infant or of school age in 1939. Records of anyone born less than 100 years earlier are closed, unless they are known to have died. The 1939 Register for England and Wales is published online on Findmypast and Ancestry and documents over 41 million people in over 11 million households. The originals of the 1939 Register for each country of the United Kingdom remain in the relevant national archives—e.g. the PRONI for Northern Ireland, the National Records of Scotland etc.

Fiona Fitzsimons is a director of Eneclann, a Trinity campus company, and of findmypast Ireland.

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