The National Registration Act 1939 (2 & 3 Geo. VI c. 91) was an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom. The initial National Registration Bill was introduced to Parliament as an emergency measure at the start of the Second World War.
The Act established a National Register which began operating on 29 September 1939 (National Registration Day), a system of identity cards, and a requirement that they must be produced on demand or presented to a police station within 48 hours.
Importance of the 1939 register
The register is particularly important for genealogists because:
- The 1921 Census will only be made available online in January 2022.
- The 1931 census records for England and Wales were destroyed by fire during the Second World War.
- No census was undertaken during 1941.
- The register records the precise date of birth of those registered.
The lack of both the 1931 and 1941 census means that the Register provides the most complete survey of the population of England and Wales between 1921 and 1951, making it an invaluable resource for family, social and local historians. In fact, until the 1921 census is available, the 1939 Register is the most complete publicly available detailed record of the population of England and Wales since 1911.
Second World War Identity Cards
Every man, woman and child had to carry an identity (ID) card at all times and the cards would include the following information:
- Age, however, the enumerators did not collect the age as was the norm for the decennial census, but the actual date of birth.
- Occupation, profession, trade or employment. The Register had also collected information on the role of persons in institutions, indicated by the initial letter of the terms Officer, Visitor, Servant, Patient, or Inmate.
- Marital status
- Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.
The register differed from the decennial census in a number of ways, one of which was the place of birth was not recorded, and the second was that the register was meant to be a living document. Hence, perusal of the register shows that maiden surnames have been replaced by married surnames when registered persons later married.
65,000 enumerators across the country delivered forms ahead of the chosen day. On Friday 29 September 1939, householders were required to record details on the registration forms. On the following Sunday and Monday the enumerators visited every householder, checked the form and then issued a completed identity card for each of the residents. All cards at this time were the same brown/buff colour. Some 45 million identity cards were issued. The estimate of the population of England and Wales for 1939 was 41.465 million exclusive of army, navy and merchant seamen abroad, and some sources record the register as so the figure of 45 million may include the members of the armed forces abroad or in Scotland.
Three main reasons for the introduction of the identity cards were:
- 1. The major dislocation of the population caused by mobilisation and mass evacuation and also the wartime need for complete manpower control and planning in order to maximise the efficiency of the war economy.
- 2. The likelihood of rationing (introduced from January 1940 onwards).
- 3. Population statistics. As the last census had been held in 1931, there was little accurate data on which to base vital planning decisions. The National Register was in fact an instant census and the National Registration Act closely resembles the Census Act 1920 in many ways.
1943 (Blue) Identity Card
The more commonly found blue version of the identity card (see image) was issued in 1943 for adults. Until then, adult identity cards had been brown, the same colour as children's cards. Government officials had green ID cards with a photograph whilst those in the armed services had separate identification cards.
Children under 16 were issued with Identity Cards but they were to be kept by their parents. Identification was necessary if families were separated from one another or their house was bombed, and if people were injured or killed.
The sections in the card showing the change in address were important, as many people moved several times during the war.
Class Codes were used for administration and electoral purposes. Cards were marked A, B, C, N or V.
- A: Aged over 21
- B: Aged between 16 and 21
Additionally, all class code 'B' cards were followed by three numbers. The first two indicated the year in which the holder was born whilst the third indicated which quarter of the year the holder was born in. For example, B. 252 would show that the holder was born in the second quarter of 1925 and would also indicate to a polling clerk that the holder would attain adult status in the second quarter of 1946 (i.e. reach the age of 21).
- C: Appeared on yellow cards issued to workers from 'Eire' (Ireland) who were conditionally admitted to Great Britain.
- N: Cards re-issued under an altered name.[notes 1]
- V: Placed on yellow cards issued to people over 16 arriving in this country who declared that they were usually resident outside the UK.
Temporary buff cards were issued to children under 16 but did not carry a class code.
Repeal of the Act
On 21 February 1952, it no longer became necessary to carry an identity card. The National Registration Act of 1939 was repealed on 22 May 1952. The last person prosecuted under the Act was Harry Willcock. Even after the National Registration system was abandoned in 1952, the National Registration number persisted, being used within the National Health Service, for voter registration, and for the National Insurance System.
Access to information
The records created under the National Registration Act are held by The National Archives but were not freely accessible to the public for many years. From 2010, subject to restrictions to safeguard the privacy of people who are or may still be living, information could be obtained from the NHS Information Centre about specific individuals for a fee. The National Archives has now entered into an agreement under which the original documents for England and Wales have been digitised and scanned and are available (subject to privacy restrictions) on the subscription-based Findmypast and Ancestry.com websites. The digital images can also be viewed at The National Archives themselves in their reading room.
- NHS number
- Identity Cards Act 2006
- Rayner Goddard, Baron Goddard
- Defence Regulations
- Timeline of the United Kingdom home front during World War II
- There was no requirement to use the registered name in everyday life. In accordance with long-standing English practice, the use of aliases was permitted.
- National Registration Act, 1939. Rootsweb.com. URL accessed 1 March 2008.
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- Jonathan Scott (28 February 2017). A Dictionary of Family History: The Genealogists' ABC. Pen & Sword Books. p. 53. ISBN 978-1-4738-9254-5. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
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- M. Epstein (28 December 2016). The Statesman's Year-Book: Statistical and Historical Annual of the States of the World for the Year 1942. Springer. pp. 77–. ISBN 978-0-230-27071-8.
- Edward Higgs (6 October 2011). Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-4411-3801-9. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
- Edward Higgs (6 October 2011). Identifying the English: A History of Personal Identification 1500 to the Present. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-4411-3801-9. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
- World War II: 'Wartime Domesday' book showing life in 1939 to be made publicly available online. The Independent, 1 November 2015. Retrieved 6 July 2017.
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- Select Committee on Home Affairs Fourth Report, 20 July 2004
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- Jon Agar, Identity cards in Britain: past experience and policy implications
- Privacy International, History of ID Cards in the United Kingdom, 1 Jan 1997
- Statewatch, Identity cards in the UK - a lesson from history
- The 1939 National Identity Card