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Using the 1939 Register for Family History

Privacy laws in the UK can make research in the 20th century difficult. If you want a birth certificate issued less than 100 years ago, a marriage certificate less than 75 years ago or a death less than 50 years ago, you can’t see the image online, you’ll have to order a paper copy from the records office. This is expensive and time consuming.

Similar rules apply to the census, with a 100 year embargo on the data. The most recent release was the 1921 census, which was released through FindMyPast. After that, there’s a bit of a gap. The 1931 census for England and Wales was destroyed in a fire at the records office, although the forms for Scotland and Northern Ireland survive. There was also no census taken in 1941 because of the War. One of the record sets which is the most useful for bridging this gap in 20th century research in the UK is the 1939 Register.

What is the 1939 Register?

As Britain hurtled towards conflict in 1939, the government passed an Act requiring everyone to have identity cards. In order to issue an ID card for every man, woman and child in the country, the 1939 Register was taken on 29 September. The 1939 is not a census and differs in many ways. Places of birth were not recorded, just current address. People completing the forms were asked to state exact date of birth rather than age, which gives a more accurate date to work from if there is confusion over exactly when someone was born. Employment or trade was also recorded on the form. The 1939 Register was always intended to be a working document, updated when things changed. The census is a “snapshot” of that specific moment in time, and is not updated.

Why is the 1939 Register redacted?

The 1939 register is available online, through the big genealogy sites like Ancestry and FindmyPast. When looking for ancestors you may see redactions – whole entries which have been blanked out. These entries refer to someone born less than 100 years ago, who could still potentially be alive. Seeing the redaction might also help work out whether there were children in the household at the time. As the Register was a working document, you may also see names crossed out and something else written above. This usually indicates a woman who has married or remarried and changed her surname and can also be a valuable clue.

My Family History is Scottish – where’s the Register?

Although the 1939 Register for England and Wales is widely available, the same isn’t true of the Scottish document. A 1939 Register for Scotland does exist, and is held in National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. The only way of getting access to the information in the Register is to apply in writing and ask for information on a named individual. The NRS will only give details from the 1939 Register for people who have died, and charge £15 plus postage for each search. Northern Ireland’s access is similarly restricted, but there is no charge for accessing information held there.

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