The 1939 Register for England & Wales debuted on FindMyPast last evening (my time). For those that don’t know, the 1939 Register was the UK government’s work to take a census of everyone living in the country in September 1939, through which they issued national ID cards. And from what I understand, it was quite precisely everyone living in the country at the time – anyone who wasn’t in the country wasn’t enumerated. There was no 1941 census because of the war, so the Register is also a substitute for a would-be record set that wasn’t created, and since the 1931 census was destroyed during the bombing of London, the 1939 Register is also akin to the 1900 US census – a document to try to fill in gaps from 18 or 20 years of no censuses. Last week FindMyPast announced that the Register would be going live on Monday, November 2nd, which turned out to mean midnight GMT. They got a lot of flack for high pricing on the Register entries, with each scanned page costing 60 credits, and the Register not being included in what subscribers can view for no additional fee.
As a subscriber to both FindMyPast and the Lost Cousins newsletter, I got a coupon from each site for buying what they called five-household packages, which was technically a bundle of 300 credits per coupon. So I decided that I would use the coupons to find ten households to view. Many fellow Americans have said they will wait till the price (eventually) drops, but having booked a trip to visit the UK next year (yay!), I’m on a deadline to see if there are any more cousins there to find to be able to meet in person. Research takes time, and sometimes there’s the additional wait time for ordering specific records, and then doing legwork to try to locate anyone still alive also takes time.
Because 20th century England has often felt to me like people fell into a black hole in the early part of the century, I was not sure how easy it would be for me to find people, nor how many of them were living within England in 1939. The debut last year of the governmental site allowing people to order probates of England & Wales online up to a few weeks ago has made a significant dent in my 20th century research, as long-distance researchers can now order online (at £10 each, they cost more than viewing a 1939 Register household; however, ordering them online costs less than the way I had to do it before, which included paying a researcher for her time in going to the Probate Office on my behalf, ordering the copies, and mailing them to me). (For more information on the probate site, see my posts Finding probates 1858-1995 in England & Wales and Receiving copies of probates 1858-1995 in England and Wales.) Anyone who was born less than 100 years ago and which hadn’t been proven to be dead before a certain date (I don’t remember the exact date offhand) is redacted from the household entries in the Register, though you can send FindMyPast a scan of a death certificate to try to get a redacted entry opened.
Before I discuss in detail my foray so far, let me give you some general tips I have gleaned:
- Don’t get stuck upon a certain birthday, even if you know what the person’s birthday should be. As with any record, sometimes there are errors and/or conflicting evidence.
- Don’t get stuck upon someone definitely living with someone else, even if you are pretty sure they should be living together.
- Start with as little information as possible. (This is how I do almost all my searching for research)
- Adding in an estimated birth year (I would recommend starting with +/- 2 years and continuing to narrow if you still get too many hits) and/or a given name of a person that you think will be living with the main search target is a great way to narrow down an overwhelming number of results for a common name. But again – don’t assume that the record will reflect what you think it will or that the transcription will necessarily be correct.
- For those like me that are searching for cousins rather than our own ancestors, use other records in conjunction with this to narrow down results. I have personally found probate records and electoral rolls particularly helpful in helping to give an idea of where someone might have been living in 1939.
- In these early days, if you get an error message try reloading. (Last night I got error messages about 50% of the time.) If you get several error messages, take a break with some tea/coffee or a walk outside and try again later. The records will still be there.
I started out with relatives I’d recently traced, choosing first to search for my cousin’s husband with the unusual name of Studley Gerry. I can’t say as I was too surprised to find there was only one Studley Gerry living in all of England & Wales in 1939. Clicking through to preview the transcription showed that there were three people included in the record and three who were redacted, for a household total of seven people. I purchased the household and learned immediately that I had the correct household, as my cousin Winifred Audrey Gerry (Studley’s wife) was listed. I discovered that the other two people included were a son by her first marriage whom I had not known existed, and her little brother. The scan shows you what precise lines are redacted, and through this I believe that I have two to three more unknown-to-me children of Winifred to find, depending on whether the redacted line just above her brother is a child of Winifred or one of her siblings.
It was interesting to note that Winifred’s birth year was several years off, particularly since some people have recommended searching by exact birth dates (as birth dates are included in the entries). Her birth year had been written as the same year as a younger person in the household, and then crossed out by a different pen, with the last two numbers reversed by that other pen. So while it is tempting to say that Winifred was probably lying about her age after having married a younger man (something I have seen both men and women do), I wonder if it was instead a clerical error either on the household’s part or on the part of the person who copied their form into the register. However, this was not the only time I would see a birthday that wasn’t the one I have in my files – a cautionary tale for those exact-match searchers. The other time in the entries I have viewed so far, the birthday was exactly one year different than the birthday I had in my file, leaving me unsure if the error was in the register or in the documents I had previously viewed. The transcription of the household (after you pay you view the full transcription) also had an indexing error, with Winifred’s son and brother mistakenly listed as the same occupation that she had, “Unpaid household duties.”
I next tried to find Winifred’s father, who had the much more common name of John Turner. It took a lot more winnowing on my part, including inputting a year of birth. I had recently ordered his will, which he had never changed after writing it in 1924, and that had given me a location for him post-1911-census. Luckily for me, he was still living in the same town in 1939. The preview contained a shock – it listed only him in the household. Skeptical that there had been an error, I bought it – but it was correct. Even though the woman I had known as his wife would still be alive for quite a while, and he had several children who could have been living with him, he was living by himself. Now I understood better why Winifred’s youngest brother was living with her. I tried to find his wife because I was curious, but with such a common surname as Turner, and my not even being sure that she hadn’t divorced him and married someone else by 1939, I quickly gave up the search.
I moved on to one of Winifred’s other siblings, with the very unusual (married) name of Sadrene Petherbridge. I had found through FreeBMD that Sadrene had married a William Petherbridge, but I had literally nothing about him in my files – I didn’t even know yet how old he was, much less where he had been born or anything, as the surname Petherbridge had turned out to not be as unique as I had expected when I found the marriage. (Like almost all researchers, I would buy every certificate possible if I could but have to pick and choose which ones I spend the money on. And I hadn’t bought William and Sadrene’s marriage certificate from the GRO yet.) Sadrene Petherbridge, like Studley Gerry before her, turned out to be the only one in the country in 1939. Clicking through to view their entry gave me William’s birthday, and information on a child I had not known about, with a redacted line below their son probably being another child. Through inputting William’s exact birthday I was able to find his death date, and used that to locate him in the Probate Calendar, then ordering his probate file from the governmental probate site. The child whose entry wasn’t redacted turned out to have died before his parents, but I’m hoping that William’s probate file might provide me the names of other relatives who could potentially still be alive.
Next I tried to search for Sadrene and Winifred’s brother Herbert, but Herbert Turner turned out to be a common name and I did not have an idea of where he was living in 1939, so after a few attempts to narrow down my results, I quickly moved on to a different branch of my tree. Finding the wonderfully-named Victor John Edward Crowley was another easy task from the unusual name combination, and through his household’s register entry, I found a wife I had not known about, including her exact date of birth. There is also a redacted entry that I am guessing is a child from one of his marriages. Every entry gives another piece of the puzzle – another angle to pursue or person to try to give a name.
Through electoral rolls I knew that the husband of a cousin on a different line was living in Surrey in the 1940’s, so I next tried to find Charles Davey. As one might expect, I got a lot of results. This time I input a second name, my cousin Grace, just inputting her first name. Immediately the results changed and the top hit was the place where he had been listed on the electoral rolls, so I bought the household. It did indeed turn out to be the correct family. Like with Sadrene and William, I had Charles’s name and their marriage year but nothing else about him, so again the 1939 Register gave me an exact birth date. In this case so far it has not led to further records about him, but at least it is more information than I had.
This completed my first five-household package, but since I was still alert despite the growing late hour, I decided to try a couple more unusual searches. I tried a search for the surname Sadrene’s same-named niece married, as I have not been able to find any biographical information on him. His surname produced no results at all, which could be because he was not living in England at the time (his name sounds Continental European to me, and they did not marry until after the war), or could be because he would be less than 100 years old now. (I am not including his surname because I have yet to determine whether he is living or deceased, though I am sure both Sadrenes have died.) For my final search I chose an easier target, the Redcliffes, the last of whom died in 1982. I found them in Hereford as I expected, but was surprised to find the entire family still living together, though their three surviving children were in their late 30’s to early 40’s. It was a pleasant surprise that will save me further searches for the family, and nice too to see the daughters listed with paid jobs, an early sign of what was to come with the war.
Six households into my 1939 Register research, I reflected on my findings so far. It is of course important to get confirmation of what you expect to find or to add , but for me the most immediately satisfying finds were the unexpected – the brother living with his married sister’s family, the nuclear family all still living together after over 40 years. For some people I had no birth dates before last night, and for others (as well as them) I had no occupations before last night. Most people were in the location I expected them to be, but there were a couple households where I had no idea where they were living in 1939 until last night. And it has led me to new records, especially to the Petherbridge probate that I hope will lead to living cousins. If I had a lot of research in 1939 England, I think I would have been much more likely to just take the transcription at its word that John Turner was living alone despite what I’d expected and move on to a household that had more proverbial bang for the buck than his one-person household. Any time when money is an issue, researchers make decisions like this by necessity – which person(s), which records, to prioritize. For many of my fellow Americans, this choice has included not searching the 1939 Register at all at this point. I can’t say what is the right choice for others, but I am glad I have found the information that I have, and I look forward to downloading four more households in the future.