Monday, 2 November 2015

Review of 1939 English and Welsh register release

Right, time for the big review! Or at least, my impressions of the 1939 National Identity Register release for England and Wales after my initial disappointed foray into it in the early hours of this morning (see So is it useful? Well, much to my own surprise from past searches on entries already sourced on the register from across the UK, perhaps more so than I would have imagined - but with one hell of a load of caveats!

The 1939 register is not a census, but it is the closest thing to one that folk living in England and Wales are likely to see between 1921 and 1951 (Scotland still has its 1931 census and Northern Ireland its 1937 census, both to be released after a 100 year closure period). It is therefore a useful document to an extent to help bridge that gap, and has the added bonus of making it online before a one hundred year closure period, it not being classified officially as a census, and therefore not subject to the same act restricting other censuses. However, it is not a census, and does not carry as much detail as would be found in one.

I have made five test purchases via the FindmyPast US site, buying a bundle of credits, enough for 5 searches, at $37.95 (about £24.55, 40p cheaper than the UK site!). Regular subscribers of the site were previously told that a discount code would be sent out to them upon the record launch. I understand that some folk have received this, entitling them to 25% off the cost, but as it stands just now I have yet to receive that email, and I've heard similar tales from other folk.

The launch
Let's just say that at one point I thought this was going to turn out to be a 1901 census all over again! It took me well over an hour to successfully download my first image - at one point I had thought I had succeeded, only for my computer to say "No" when I asked it to open it. It was quite frankly tortuous. However, having made my frustrations known on Twitter (along with many other folk), FindmyPast had soon got their act together, and within the space of four minutes I was able to search and download all the relevant images of interest successfully.

Access restrictions
When the NHSIC previously made available searches for the register (both for free via an FOI request, and then through a payment scheme of £42 per household), the only restriction on access they provided was that the subject had to be dead before the record could be released, to comply with data protection legislation.

Unfortunately, FMP and TNA have implemented a tighter restriction policy. A closure period has been imposed on records for those born less than 100 years ago. This can be challenged if you know that someone who was born more recently has since died, but evidence of death has to be provided (see On this front, and if I have understood this right, FMP is only able to verify dates of death before 1991, as noted in the register itself, whereas NHSIC had previously been able to verify later dates of death also. I think this means that after 1991 you will need to supply the death cert.  It also explains why the request I made five years ago to NHSIC (see my previous post) released all details for a household bar one name, whereas the FMP equivalent has placed restrictions on five individuals. This essentially means that, if I have understood this correctly, for those in the register who died between 1991 and 2015 - a quarter of a century's worth of deaths - you won't see them on the site immediately, without first providing FMP with that evidence for their death.

FMP has stated that if a subscriber supplies date of death, and evidence (i.e. a death certificate), it will remove the redaction on that record. However, I am unclear as yet whether the user would have to pay to see the record again - though I would be surprised if that was the case. Having purchased the record, it remains as a purchase on your account, so I would imagine that the image would simply be updated - but don't quote me on that!

The National Archives has also offered a service to allow look-ups of closed records, via a Freedom of Information request, at a cost of £25 - see point 8 of its user guide on the collection at This will only provide a transcript, however, so access through FMP is probably a better bet.

I have noted some other minor frustrating access issues. When an entry is redacted, a black line is superimposed over the top. In a couple of records I have seen, this line has actually partially covered up some of the text on the entry above or below, making legibility difficult. Of equal irritation is that the register images present the whole page of the entry, plus the first column of the subsequent page, which contains 'observations'. Some of the images I have seen do not show all of the text available in this latter column, with the final part cut off to the right edge. I have been able to just about get the jist (e.g. someone being noted as also being an ARP warden), but the detail is incomplete. In another case, a friend noted that an image she was looking for was redacted because a piece of sellotape on the image had obscured the birth date!

Success rate in locating images of interest
It's possible I may be the lucky one here, but of the five searches I have personally made, I have had a one hundred per cent success rate. Prior to payment, the name of an individual, year of birth, other surnames, and where recorded, allows some idea if you have the right candidate. For those with a John Smith in the tree, this may not be enough, but one other useful, if somewhat tortuous way to narrow things further, is to use the image reference number, which begins with RG. If you know your John Smith was in Wigan, and had a wife called Matilda, a daughter called Gertrude and a son called Peter, who you suspect were all together at the time and all died before 1991, then searches for each of those candidates in the geographic area of interest should generate reference numbers which are almost identical, bar the last digits, which are the line numbers in the entry - e.g. if you find one person with a number RG101/2223D/0007/3, and the others have the same number, but perhaps with last numbers 4, 5 and 8 instead of 3, then it is possibly worth a punt to purchase that record.

(UPDATE: Thanks to John Reid for an easier workaround on this, by doing a piece and item search to identify all those on any page - i.e. in this example, to do a search using the 2223D and 0007 part of the above reference to find everyone on the page - see John's post at

I have heard of other issues, however, through dialogues on Facebook and by email from other users. For example, one email has informed me that there appear to be some images missing from the West Midlands - but why this is, or indeed, if this is indeed the case, I cannot vouch for from my own experience.

Is it worth it?
The sixty four thousand dollar question - is it worth it?! Well, let's get the boring genealogist's response out of the way first - any record that confirms the presence of a person in an area at any point at any time is a valuable record. The key question should perhaps really be this - does it provide info that you won't find anywhere else? Well, the following are some of the revelations I have found from the entries I have found so far:

Muriel and Elizabeth Paton: Muriel was my grandfather's first cousin, Elizabeth his aunt. I previously knew their birth dates, when Elizabeth was widowed and when she herself died, and that Muriel had never married. A family member had told me that they had lived in Watford together. The 1939 register tells me that indeed they did, giving me the address, but also that Muriel was a housekeeper and that her elderly mother was retired. There were ten folk in the house, but although the house is noted as the 'Dawes household' in the transcription, I am not so sure - it looks to me like it might have been some form of accommodation block, perhaps a hotel, as no-one seems to be of the same name as the first person in the household, and with many different occupations, not all of them domestic service.

Eric W. Philip: my grandfather's cousin Janet Paton died before the war, but all I knew about her husband was his name, not having yet purchased their marriage record. This needs to be pursued further, but if this is the correct Eric, then he was a Presbyterian church minister - the same occupation as her brother William. His date of birth is located for the first time also, and the fact that, if this is the right person, he has remarried after Janet's early death (though the second wife's name is redacted).

Kingsley Smith and Margaret Paton: Margaret's name was actually Lillian Margaret Smith (nee Paton), but she was noted here as Margaret L. Smith. As well as useful occupational info, the final column, the first on the next page, shows them both to be involved as ARP wardens in some capacity in Epsom and Ewell, although a redacted line above Kingsley's entry has somewhat mangled some of the text for his entry. Also the first time I have sourced Kingsley's date of birth.

Henry Sewell and Ella Dunlop Paton: The occupation info notes Henry as being a stevedore, with an illegible word after, either 'tonnage' or 'sewage', but perhaps not as FMP has him, a 'savage'! Henry's date of birth found for the first time.

Noreen Giles: a cousin of my wife's side of the family. I previously suspected that Noreen might have married someone by the surname of Cochrane in 1940. This entry notes Noreen as a hotel chambermaid, and in a different ink has the name Cochrane written above her surname, which is scored out - implying that the entry was updated in 1940 after she married. In yet another ink, the name Whitby is also recorded above her name - a possible second marriage? One to pursue further.

As can be seen, each record did indeed provide a little more than was known before, with some useful clues to pursue further. Another question though - is it worth the money paid for them? Well considering that it was previously £42 to obtain the same household info prior to today, it is quite a drop - but that is somewhat frustrated by the increased amount of redaction from when the same records were sourced from the NHSIC. It still remains the case that an English or Welsh vital records certificate costs £9.25, so when considered against that, I don't necessarily see these as being within an expensive league of their own. (Obviously getting the equivalent Northern Irish records at present for free from PRONI trumps that - but not everyone is so blessed as to have Norn Iron connections!).

As with any genealogical record, perhaps the real questions are i) how likely is the 1939 register going to help solve your query, and ii) how much do you want to pay for the privilege?

Only you can answer that...!

UPDATE: There's a good blog post from Audrey Collins on the process of national registration and what happened next, with some additional reasons why folk may not be listed in the English and Welsh National Register. See

UPDATE: More info on the back of a FindmyPast hosted webinar is available at


For details on my genealogy guide books, including my recently released Discover Irish Land Records and Down and Out in Scotland: Researching Ancestral Crisis, please visit My Pinterest account is at


  1. I subscribed to email updates, and today I got a discount code for 10% off a 5 household bundle.

  2. Thanks, Chris, for a very useful article. I've actually been out all day, so haven't had much time for a "play" with these records. But having also paid £42 previously to obtain the records for my own mother, living with her mother and sisters in Reigate, I was intrigued to note that you had found differences in the level of redaction between the two services. My own mother had died in 2001 and so I was surprised to see her details in full when my documents arrived from NHSIC. They had obviously done quite a bit of work to trace her, through two marriages, a divorce and finally a death. But it seems that she will still be redacted in this latest version, as I have searched high and low and can't find her indexed. Her late mother is listed of course. I'm refusing to pay for any credits at the moment, as I shall be at TNA on Wednesday, where access is free, so I will find out for sure. But it is interesting to read your early comments.

  3. Hi Chris
    Ref the missing areas in West Mids. I've so far identified Willenhall, Wednesbury and Wednesfield in Staffs as missing. Am awaiting a response from FMP. All my father's family are therefore missing. Very disappointing!
    Regards Mike (Staffs GENUKI author)

  4. I received my subscriber discount e-mail only today, so hope you'll get yours too. So far, haven't located any of my 'most wanteds' so haven't paid for a look at an actual doc. Expect I'll do that soon as I see abt. 28 pp. of Saggers (my one-name study). Some of these are if special interest to me.

  5. Will the price in Scotland for the 1939 data be reduced to match that in England and Wales? - probably not.

  6. Findmypast appear now to have removed the TNA reference from the preview, which means that you cannot check out a potential match and see all household members in brief with a single search. I was finding that in most cases this was all that was needed, as paying for the original page was very unlikely to provide more information than I had already - if no unexpected members of the household could be found.