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1939 Register: A short history


In 1938 the government announced that in the event of war, a National Register would be taken that listed the personal details of every civilian.

This Register was to be a critical tool in co-ordinating the war effort at home. It would be used to issue identity cards, organize rationing and more.

On 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. On September 5th, the National Registration Act received royal assent and Registrar General Sir Sylvanus Vivian announced that National Registration Day would be 29th September.

Having issued forms to more than 41 million people, the enumerators were tasked with visiting every household in Great Britain and Northern Ireland to collect the names, addresses, martial statuses and other key details of every civilian in the country, issuing identity cards on the spot.

The identity cards issued were essential items from the point the Register was taken right up until 1952, when the legal requirement to carry them ceased. Until then, every member of the civilian population had to be able to present their card upon request by an official (children’s cards were looked after by parents) or bring them to a police station within 48 hours.

The reasons were numerous – it was essential to know who everyone was, of course, and to track their movements as they moved home, as well as to keep track of the population as babies were born and people passed away.

The 1939 Register represents one of the most important documents in 20th century Britain. The information it contains not only helped toward the war effort, it was also used in the founding of the National Health Service in 1948.

We can help trace family members in the 1939 Register (but note that, for privacy reasons, the entries for anyone born in the last 100 years who could be alive may be "officially closed" and not available). Select Bespoke Research from the menu on the right (or at the bottom of the page if you are using a mobile device) to get in touch about a one-off piece of research on the 1939 Register.

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