National Registration Act 1939

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Adult Identity Card - 1943

The National Registration Act 1939 (2 & 3 Geo. VI c. 91) was an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom.[1] 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[edit]

The register is particularly important for genealogists because:

  • The 1921 Census was only made available online in January 2022.[2]
  • The 1931 census records for England and Wales were destroyed by fire during the Second World War.[3]
  • No census was undertaken during 1941.[4]
  • The register records the precise date of birth of those registered.[5]

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.[3] In fact, until the 1921 census was available, the 1939 Register was the most complete publicly available detailed record of the population of England and Wales since 1911.

Unlike the decennial censuses, the 1939 Register was designed as a working document for the duration of the war, and it was later used in the foundation of the National Health Service. It therefore records individuals born after 1939 as well as subsequent changes of name, notably in the case of single women who married after 1939.[5][6]

Second World War Identity Cards[edit]

Every man, woman and child had to carry an identity (ID) card at all times and the cards would include the following information:

  • Name
  • Sex
  • Age, however, the enumerators did not collect the age as was the norm for the decennial census, but the actual date of birth.[5]
  • 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.[3]
  • Address
  • 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.[5] 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.[5] The estimate of the population of England and Wales for 1939 was 41.465 million exclusive of army, navy and merchant seamen abroad,[7] and some sources record the register as[clarification needed]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[edit]

The more commonly found green version of the identity card (not the image shown) was issued in 1943 for adults. Until then, adult identity cards had been a buff (an off yellow) coloured card, not the same colour as children's cards, which was a manila coloured (brown) card. Government officials had green ID cards with endorsements, and a photograph. Whilst those in the armed services, or temporary displaced persons were issued with a 'Blue' version of the 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[edit]

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][8]
  • 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[edit]

On 21 February 1952, it ceased to be 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.[9]

Access to information[edit]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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 websites.[12] The digital images can also be viewed at The National Archives themselves in their reading room.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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.


  1. ^ National Registration Act, 1939. URL accessed 1 March 2008.
  2. ^ "The UK 1921 Census". UK Census Online. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  3. ^ a b c "1939 Register". The National Archives. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ a b c d e Peter Christian; David Annal (14 August 2014). Census: The Family Historian's Guide. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 71–72. ISBN 978-1-4729-0294-8. Retrieved 25 June 2020.
  6. ^ Hammond, Linda. "The hidden secrets of the 1939 National Register of England & Wales". Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  7. ^ 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.
  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.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ "NHS IC launches the 1939 Register Service". Archived from the original on 16 February 2010. Retrieved 25 July 2015.
  12. ^ "The 1939 Register".
  13. ^ "National Archives: Help with research". Retrieved 8 August 2018.

External links[edit]