06 February 2010

UK: 1939 census may hold answers

Looking for ancestors who lived in the UK in 1939? The following new resource may help, according to London researcher Laurence Harris.

While census records are a major source of information for family historians and genealogists, access to recent records is limited in most countries, thus access to this 1939 collection may be useful to researchers.

Laurence writes that there has been a UK census (England and Wales), recording individual names and other relevant details, every 10 years since 1841, with 1911 being the last publicly released census data for individuals:
  • There was a 1921 census (data to be released in 2021).

  • The 1931 census data was destroyed during WWII.

  • There was no 1941 census due to the war.

  • There is a massive gap (1911-1951) in currently available UK census information.

  • In preparation for war, an effective census (1939 National Registration Act) was taken on September 29, 1939, including such details as name, sex, age, occupation, marital status and membership in the armed forces.

  • Data was later used for issuance of ID cards, post-war National Insurance numbers, and other purposes.
In a recent development, individuals may now apply to have a copy of the data in this 1939 register (relating to those then living in England or Wales) by applying to The Information Centre of the NHS (National Health Service).

CAVEAT: Data is only supplied about individuals known by the NHS to be deceased (they know about the deaths of most individuals who died in the UK) or whom the researcher can prove is deceased.

Laurence has personally contacted the NHS department handling applications for 1939 data and shared the following information.

There are two main ways of applying:
  • Supply the full name and (exact) date of birth of an individual - and you will be sent all the details they have about that individual including their 1939 address, OR

  • Supply a 1939 address in the UK and they will supply the details of up to 10 persons living at that address at that time.
The data is not publicly available online, and each application costs a hefty non-refundable £42. CAVEAT: The fee is non-refundable even if no information is found or if it is incomplete or illegible, or if information is located but cannot be released because it relates to a person whose death cannot be proved by the NHS or the researcher.

However, says Laurence, "Despite the high cost of obtaining this data and the restrictions on its availability, this unique source may provide some researchers with breakthrough information about their ancestors at the outbreak of WWII."

For details about the process (England and Wales only), click here for the application form, payment information and more. For access to the 1939 Scottish data, click here for more information.

Researchers should bear in mind, adds Laurence, that to get details of family members in 1939 - if you don't know their September 1939 address - might require two separate sequential applications:

  • Step 1: Apply to obtain an address, AND

  • Step 2: Apply to find out who else was living at that address.
No information will be given for individuals who are or could be living.

Those who request an address search will only be provided the names and details of people known to be deceased. If there were other family members who could still be alive, the researcher will not be told.

Readers who would like more information about this data or other sources for tracing people who lived in - or passed through the UK - from 1880-1950, should contact Laurence, who is a specialist in UK Jewish family history research.


  1. Schelly

    The 1939 Identity Register for Scotland is also open to the public. Details are at http://www.gro-scotland.gov.uk/press/news2010/1939-identity-register.html and it's far cheaper!

  2. Hi, Sheena.

    Yes, I noticed that the fee for the Scottish data was only 13 pounds - I think . Much more reasonable, but only for the Scottish data.

    Now, if you could access the UK data on the Scottish site, that would really be something......

    Best wishes

  3. It’s great to see good information being shared and also to see fresh, creative ideas that have never been done before.