Will the 1939 Register help your family history research?


The 1939 Register, in all its digital glory, was released by Find My Past this week and has caused quite a stir amongst professional genealogists. Controversies abound: Is it too expensive? Too heavily censored? Or too difficult to search?

For the pros hoping to use the 1939 Register on a daily basis, all these questions are very important. But what does this new source mean to you, if you only want to use it for your own family history research? Are you likely to find out anything new about your ancestors and is it worth the money?

Q. What is the 1939 Register?

A. It’s a survey of all British households taken on 29th September 1939, just a few weeks after the start of World War II. Members of the household were recorded at each address and the following details taken:

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Date of birth
  • Whether an Officer, Visitor, Servant, Patient, Inmate (Institutions only)
  • Marital status
  • Occupation
  • Notes, such as if the individual had previously had any military experience.

Q. Why is it important?

A. Apart from electoral rolls, the most recent useful document we can access is the 1911 census. The 1921 census won’t be available until the 100-year rule allows it to be published, the 1931 census went up in smoke during World War Two and the 1941 census was never taken. This means that the 1939 Register is a useful stopgap during nearly 30 years of our recent history. It provides information about what ordinary British people were doing on the brink of war.

Q. How much does it cost?

A. £6.95 to “unlock” a household, once you have seen a preview, or £24.95 for a batch of five households. If you are a 12-month subscriber you receive a one-off discount code of 20% on the bigger package.

If you’re choking into your coffee at the price, Sarah William’s blogpost helped me a little, although I still have to say because of the high cost, it won’t be a resource I use routinely.

Q. Will it tell me anything I don’t already know?

A. Well that all depends! There are several factors involved here:

  • Censorship – Anybody born after 1915 is currently blanked out of the images and the transcriptions. This can be removed, to reveal the information underneath, but only after proof of death has been received by Find My Past. So there won’t be any surprise children in the family to see, for example.
  • Search Fields – Because it’s rather expensive to view a household, you’ll want to be sure you have the right one on the preview. This is all fine if your ancestor happens to have an extraordinary name, but if, like most of us, there are several options, you will want to be sure you are unlocking the right one. So, you may well have to find out more information from another source first, so you can confirm you have the correct entry.
  • In his blog on this topic, Chris Paton highlights some interesting details, such as accurate birthdays, which he gleaned by finding his own ancestors on the 1939 Register.

My best advice is to use the 1939 Register for one of the following reasons:

  • If you are trying to piece together the story of someone who was born between 1911 and 1915, and is proving elusive on marriage and death records.
  • If you need an accurate date of birth for someone and would rather see a household than order a copy of their birth certificate, or if you can’t find their birth record on the indexes.
  • If you suspect that one of your ancestors married between 1911 and 1939 and you’ve been unable to find their marriage record on the index.
  • Or, if you simply love finding your family on historical documents and have the money to do it!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.