The 1939 Register: where did Britain sleep as war was declared?

The register brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. What will happen for other records like it?

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The 1939 Register is a “wartime Domesday Book”. Vast and yet intimate, it is a picture of precisely where people in England and Wales slept on the night of 29 September 1939. Forty-one million handwritten entries record jobs, date of birth and marital status, filling books that would reach twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral if stacked together. Refugee children who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe are listed with their adoptive families. The “Cambridge Five” Soviet spies are there. Ian Fleming gives his occupation as “stockbroker”, not novelist; Oswald Mosley is an “ex-officer, ex-MP”.

In the online version, which was published last week, the Register is feted as a powerful tool for family history. And why not: 1939 was the year when Virginia Woolf – sleeping at her country home in Sussex on the night of the 29th – wrote: “Is not anyone who has lived a life, and left a record of that life, worthy of biography – the failures as well as the successes, the humble as well as the illustrious?”

It brings the texture of one night 76 years ago within touching distance. But there is an enormous distance between the way it was made and the way it is now being sold. During National Registration Week, data was gathered by 65,000 public enumerators – often unemployed office workers – who delivered questionnaires and wrote them up. “Were it not for the fact that there is a war on,” the Daily Mail said on 26 September, “Mrs Great Britain would not be taking kindly to the man presenting himself on her doorstep this week.”

When an attempt was made to introduce a national registration scheme during the Great War, it was smeared as “Prussification”, an adoption of German bureaucratic values. In 1939, parents were just as nervous about drawing attention to children who might be conscripted. It worked the second time because it was linked to ration books. Children not on the Register might not be conscripted, but neither would they eat. Rather grimly, civil servants referred to the Register’s success as “parasitic vitality”.

After 1945, the information was used to found the National Health Service. The originals are held at the National Archives in Kew, with the records of both the living and recently dead redacted. But as of 2 November, 28 million records have been released online by the family history company Findmypast. Searching is free, but to look at the documentation for one household costs £6.95. Fifteen households costs £54.95.

Ancestry is a lucrative business. Andrew Marr, who has been promoting the resource out of enthusiasm rather than any paid brand ambassadorship, tweeted: “hardworking geeks spent two years digitising this . . . a huge job. Don’t they deserve to be paid?” Certainly, the National Archives don’t have funding enough to support this sort of undertaking any more.

Two days after the Register was published, the government released its “Snooper’s Charter”, the draft Investigatory Powers Bill. “Spooks have been harvesting our phone and email data for 14 years,” the Mail said.

Rather than a freeze-frame of one night, this would be rolling, documentary footage for future historians. But if they can get hold of this data, it seems likely they’ll have to pay for that, too. On 20 November, consultation closes on the introduction of charges for Freedom of Information requests: the very tool used by one researcher to trigger the release of the 1939 Register. 

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the threat to Britain