Tracing Your Female Ancestors in the 1939 Register
By Sue Forshaw
This blog is one of a series by members of the Lancashire and Manchester Family History Society in celebration of our female ancestors in the centenary year of the Representation of The People Act of 1918.
This blog looks at how we can use the 1939 Register to discover more about the lives of our female ancestors at the outbreak of the Second World War.
The 1939 register was taken on the 29th September 1939. It is important as it is the only surviving record of the civilian population of England and Wales between 1921 and 1951. It is not a census but a register which was used to administer conscription and also to produce identity cards and later, in January 1940, ration books. The information was also used to monitor and control the movement of the population caused by military mobilisation and mass evacuation. After 1948, it was also used as the basis for the NHS Central Register. It was updated until 1991 and was annotated when people married, divorced or changed their name.
How does it help us in our researching our female ancestors?
Date of Birth
Firstly, unlike a census, it gives us the exact date of birth so, if you are finding it difficult to find a birth certificate, this information should aid you in your search of the GRO index or other BMD sites. Also, after 1st April 1969, a person’s date of birth was recorded in the death index. This is a useful cross – reference to the date of birth in the 1939 register. However, if a person was born less than a hundred years ago you will not be able to see their record unless they had died. If someone was born less than 100 years ago, and had died, their record may still be closed if their death was not notified and recorded in the register. Deaths that occurred outside the United Kingdom are unlikely to have been notified.
Household Members and Neighbours
The Register doesn’t show the relationship between the household members but this can be inferred as it does give the marital status of those listed and the family are listed in the same way as a census starting with the father and continuing with the mother and the children in descending order of age; lodgers and visitors are likely to be at the end. If you come across a closed record you may be able to work out who it is according to where that person comes in the household. So, for example, if you have a married couple as numbers 1 and 2 in the schedule then a closed record at number 3 this will probably be their child who is still alive today and may be one of your living relatives. It’s also a good idea to look at who is living in the same street as there might well be other family members living nearby who you could add to your family tree. If you have a relative, still alive, who was born before 1939 the Register can be a useful stimulus for collecting memories from them about their life in 1939 as they could be encouraged to tell you about their recollections of their street and neighbours.
However, don’t be surprised if the husband of your female ancestor is missing from the register as military personnel and government workers who already had ID cards are unlikely to be recorded in Register.
Maiden and Married Name
Secondly, the Register can help you find the married name of a female ancestor who was single in 1939. If a woman got married after 1939 she would need a new identity card and so the Register would have to be updated. The unmarried woman’s name on the Register will be crossed out and her married name written over the top. For example, one of my family was born Nellie Nuttall on 7th January 1916. Her maiden name was crossed out and the name Wood written over the top. The letters NUY on the left-hand side indicates that her marriage took place in Haslingden, Lancashire. These codes can be found on Find My Past.
The left hand column is annotated with the date 12.5.47. This isn’t the exact date of the marriage but the date that the register was updated so her marriage took place a little before that. I then used the Lancashire BMD to search for her marriage which I then found to Frank Wood at St John’s, Stonefold, Lancashire, enabling me then to send for the marriage certificate if I wished.
The majority of name changes appear in the indexes so you can search for a person with their 1939 name or any subsequent name.
When the National Health Service was founded in 1948 the Register was used as the basis for the National Health Central Register so updates on name changes continued for the next few decades.
Thirdly, like a census, the occupation of everyone is recorded. It is interesting to note at the start of the war statistics show that almost half the women at the time were performing domestic duties which were mostly unpaid. These would be mostly women who gave up work when they got married and had a family. However, whilst researching my own family, I found the occupation of one male head of the household, Daniel Schofield living in Baxenden, Lancashire, as being unpaid domestic duties whilst his wife Maggie was a drapery dealer!
An interesting article in the Guardian shows the top ten occupations for women in 1939. As the war went on the occupations of women in general changed with more women taking the place of men in the workforce. Guardian article – The 1939 register: a tale of a country on the eve of world war
Contributing to the War Effort
The Register also shows how our female ancestors contributed to the war. If you look at the second page you will sometimes see written “Vol.ARP” this indicates that your ancestor was an ARP warden. One in six ARP wardens were women. From the 1st September 1939 a small percentage of ARP wardens were full-time and were paid a salary (£3 for men, £2 for women), but most were part-time volunteers who carried out their ARP duties as well as full-time jobs. Part-time wardens were supposed to be on duty about three nights a week, but this increased greatly when the bombing was heaviest.
You might also find out that your ancestor was in the W.V.S. which already had 165,000 members when war broke out. One of their earliest tasks was to assist with the evacuation of one and a half million mothers and children from large cities to the country. The W.V.S. also provided food and clothing for thousands of refugees from occupied Europe. Other female ancestors may have been in the British Red Cross or other voluntary groups.
If you can’t find your female ancestor living where you think she should be in 1939 it could be that she had been evacuated which took place on 1st September 1939. Children, pregnant mothers, women teachers, carers and disabled people were all evacuated.
As I haven’t got any evacuees in my family I thought I would try to search the occupation box for the term “evacuees.” By doing this I found an evacuated family living in Blackpool that of an Ethel Eyre “evacuee” and her two children Raymond and Doris “evacuees – at school” who are living with Gertrude and William Elliott at 38 High Street, Blackpool, whilst her husband, Raymond Eyre, a drawbench operator, can be found living in Manchester.
I think that the most interesting aspect of the 1939 register is that it gives us an insight into the way of life at the beginning of the war.
The 1939 Register can be searched for free on Ancestry and Find My Past at the MLFHS Help Desk at Manchester Central Library.
For more information see: