Tales of the unexpected - the 1939 Register



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.


How to make the most of the 1939 Register

As soon as the register went live - on 2nd November 2015 - I was on the Findmypast site testing and evaluating it. You can benefit from my experience, because I've posted hints, tips, and the occasional warning below.


Please be realistic in your expectations - it's not like the 1911 Census where you got more information than ever before (even the 1921 Census, when we see it in 2022 will have less information than that census). You've seen the form that householders completed - there was a link from my 15th October newsletter - so you know what questions were asked. However, the good news is that - because the register was a working document - some information was added after 1939 and where that has happened it's an unexpected bonus (see below for some examples from my own researches). The downside is that the later annotations sometimes obscure the original - for example, some names have been crossed out - and this may lead to discrepancies in the transcription.


As you must know by now, the 1939 Register is NOT included in any of the Findmypast subscriptions: in other words, it's like the 1911 Census, when that was launched in 2009, and the 1901 Census when that was launched in 2002 - you'll need to buy credits in order to view the images. However, as with the 1911 Census, there's a certain amount of information that you can get for nothing, and when you do pay for an image you get the whole page, not just the household you paid for (which is very handy if Auntie Elsie is living next door).


If you're planning to buy credits, please use one of the following links - you'll be supporting my work and the LostCousins site:







I've already had several emails from LostCousins members who have made important discoveries, or been able to confirm their previously speculative research, as a result of the information they've found in the 1939 Register - knowing someone's birthday is a great way to confirm that you've got the right birth certificate (but please note that people didn't always get their year of birth correct). Do let me know what you discover.





PS There's lots of handy information for family historians in the FREE LostCousins newsletter, which is normally published 2 or 3 times a month. If you're not already a LostCousins member just sign up - it's FREE to join - and you'll get an email alerting you to each online newsletter when it is published.



Tips - based on my experience so far


       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 (for example, Alan Turing is not listed because by September 1939 he was already at Bletchley Park)

       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



Things to watch out for


       You could end up paying twice to see the same page if you're not careful; although you 'own' a household once you've unlocked the record, if you ask to see another household on the same page you'll be charged again

       I can't find my mum, she wasn't at home, and doesn't show up in search results even though she died in 1976; I'm not sure if there is any way of opening up a record if you don't find the relevant household - will have to find out! I believe she may have been evacuated.

       Only Findmypast subscribers with 12 month Britain or World subscriptions are able to open up records via the website, but anyone can submit a request to the National Archives - however they will charge you 25

       There are lots of errors; many of the ones I've seen were errors made by the enumerator in 1939, not by the present day transcriber, or are the result of the enumerator's sloppy handwriting; but transcribers are human, so do make mistakes, especially at the end of a long day (and some of them will seem ludicrous to those of us who know the family and have all day to gaze at register page)

       If the household you've paid for extends onto a second page you can see the second page, but you can't download it; I imagine this is a bug which Findmypast will fix, but in the meantime display the errant page, right click and select 'Copy image', then paste the image into Irfanview (or your graphics program of choice), before saving it.



More about 'transcription errors'


Just because the transcription is 'wrong' doesn't mean there has been there has been a transcription error - the job of the transcriber is to transcribe what the enumerator wrote (and his job was to copy what the householder had written). However mistakes will have been made.


But consider this - if every record had been transcribed twice, and the transcriptions compared and mediated, we'd probably be paying two or three times as much to access the records. So be grateful they didn't go down that route, and accept that (often because of the enumerator's sloppy handwriting, or the confusion caused by later annotations) there will be discrepancies in the transcription.


No experienced researcher is going to have difficulty finding their relatives because of minor transcription errors like the ones I've seen, and as for newbies - well, they've got to learn how to overcome transcription errors at some point, because they're a fact of life. Of course, there are some gross errors that in cold light of day seem ludicrous - but we all make those sorts of mistakes after staring at a computer screen all day (at least, I do - so thank goodness my wife proofreads my newsletters!).


There are at least three ways to search - by name, by address, and by birthdate - so few experienced researchers will allow themselves to be beaten. In fact most of us enjoy a challenge!



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)


2nd November 2015 - as it happened


12.02am Well, it didn't appear at midnight, so I'll try to get some sleep.


4.45am I can't get back to sleep so I check whether the 1939 Register is available - IT IS!!!


4.57am I've successfully carried out my first search and see my grandparents


5.55am I've found my other grandparents, but my mum's not at home - where is she?????


5.56am My aunt and her husband are listed, even though she wasn't born until 1918 - this must be because she died in 1990 (there are some scribbled notes in blue ink but I can't read them)


6.00am I can see the entry for Mr Mouse, who I remember as one of our neighbours when I was growing up - I never knew his name was Ernest


8.23am I have uploaded my Dad's death certificate - it will be interesting to see how long it takes to open the record



Peter Calver 2015 - this site is not affiliated with or sponsored by the National Archives or Findmypast (though I hope they read it!)

Last updated 4.23pm 8th November 2015