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The 1939 National Identity Card

A census of the United Kingdom was due to be taken in early 1941 but this never happened because of World War II. A census had been taken in 1931 but, for England and Wales, personal information has been lost, see here for more details and one was taken in 1951 but this leaves a big gap for family historians.

However at the outbreak of the war, National Identity Cards were issued to everyone resident in the United Kingdom and the information recorded has been retained, so in a limited way we do have a 1939 mini census, which partially makes up for the lack of a 1941 census for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland..

Basic facts about the 1939 National Identity Card

Taken on the night of Friday 29th September 1939.

Details recorded for each person were:

  • Residence
  • Name
  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Marital status
  • Occupation
  • If member of armed forces or reserves

The 1939 Identity Card

As war approached, preparations were made to enable a national register to be rapidly compiled and identity cards issued. A National Registration Bill was quickly introduced and royal assent given on the 5th September 1939, just two days after the declaration of war and a few days later it was announced that National Registration Day would be Friday September 29th 1939.

Three main reasons were put forward by the government for passing the law in September 1939. The first was 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. The second was the likelihood of rationing, actually introduced from January 1940 onwards and the third main reason was that the Government needed recent statistics about the population. 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 1920 Census Act in many ways.

The decision was made to use similar methods as for the census for which planning had started for the 1941 census. Basically 65,000 enumerators across the country delivered forms ahead of the chosen day. On the 29th, householders were required to record details on the registration forms and then on the following Sunday and Monday the enumerators visited every householder, checked the form and there and then issued a completed identity card for each of the residents.

Click here to see a sample blank registration form.

Information gathered for each person was their address, name, sex, date of birth, marital condition, occupation and whether a member of the armed forces or reserves.

Approximately 46 million cards were issued. The identity card had 2 pages and at top of each page the enumerator entered the person's name and their identity card number. This card number consisted of a four letter enumeration district code plus the line number of the schedule that was completed by the enumerator, e.g. for area ABCD, schedule line 24, 3rd person in the household the card number would have been "ABCD 24/3"

On the right hand page of the cards was a space for the cardholder's full postal address and signature but when originally issued in 1939, there were strict instructions that this should be left blank for now.
"Do nothing with this part until you are told. Nothing whatever must be written on this portion. It is there as a reserve provision for a certain kind of contingency which may or may not arise. If such a contingency does arise the public will be told what to do by broadcast or otherwise.

Even in wartime allowances were made. The Daily Mail reported that members of the Wearside Jewish community who had been celebrating the eight-day Festival of the Tabernacles were allowed to delay for 24 hours the completion of their registration forms because they were forbidden by their faith to use pen or pencil during the festival.

The Daily Mail also warned that anyone neglecting to register may have great difficulty in obtaining a ration book later.

It did emerge subsequently that in some areas, a significant number of mothers had omitted their sons from the registration because they did not want them to be called up for National Service but later came forward to register them when they realised it was needed for ration books.

Initially, the card had to be produced to a policeman on demand or alternatively within 2 days at a police station. Further regulations were also issued requiring notification of change of address, also for births so a card could be issued for the newborn, also surrendering of the card if the person dies.

In December provision was also made to make it possible to exchange an ordinary buff identity card for a green card with room for a photograph and description of the holder; the reason for this was to assist anyone who needed to provide better evidence of their identity where they did not possess any other acceptable document, for example if they required access to enter a protected area under the defence regulations.

Later in late May 1940, presumably as the danger of an invasion increased, instructions were issued that everyone over 16 must now sign and date the card and write their address on the right hand page of the card and also that the card must be carried at all times. In the case of under 16s, the parent or guardian had the responsibility of signing the card and entering the address; under 16s were instructed not to carry the card with them but instead follow advice given earlier of carrying a luggage label or card with them with their name, address and national registartion identity number.

Initially, adult identity cards were buff, the same colour as children's cards, but in 1943 when registration and rationing were combined, a blue card was introduced and issued to all adults, replacing their previous cards. A new buff card for children was introduced at the same time but existing children's cards were not replaced apart from when a new card was necessary.

The Identity Card was finally abolished in February 1952, but the identity numbers were used within the National Health Service to give everyone an individual number. People who had a national identity number during the Second World War or just after still have the same number as their NHS identity today.

Accessing the 1939 Identity Card Information for England & Wales

The 1939 Identity Card Information is now in the care of the NHS Information Centre since it was used to form the basis of the NHS Central Register, a list of everyone who is, or ever has been, registered with a General Practitioner in England and Wales since the foundation of the National Health Service in July 1948. Until 1991 a manual (paper-based) system was in operation, since then a computer system known as CHRIS (Central Health Register Enquiry System) has been used.

Guy Etchells who was responsible for the challenge to the Information Commissioner that resulted in the 1911 census for England and Wales being released "early" (well early as far as the government was concerned) also challenged the refusal of the NHS Information Centre to release information taken during the 1939 Identity Card Registration and in late 2009 received a ruling by the Information Commissioner partially in his favour where that information relates to deceased persons. The ruling can be seen here.

In response to this and a large number of people following Guy's lead and also making requests, the National Health Service Information Centre announced at the end of January 2010 a formal service for people to request data held on the 1939 Register for England and Wales. There is a charge for this - 42 - and data will only be released for individuals who have died and are now recorded as deceased. See here for more details with a further link to a form that needs to be completed and submitted.

You can request information in three ways

The fee is for a search with no refund once they have started their search if nothing is found. They also warn that many members of the Armed Forces were not recorded at their normal address because they had already been called up for military service. Payment can only be made by cheque, international money order or a bankers draft. Applications should be sent to The 1939 Register Team, Room B108, NHS IC, Smedley Hydro, Trafalgar Road, Southport, PR8 2HH.

Accessing the 1939 Identity Card Information for Scotland

For Scotland, there are details here on how you can order an official extract. The charge is considerably less, 15, but this is for a person search, not an address search. A copy of the death certificate of the person who is the subject of the enquiry is required if the death of the person was not registered in Scotland.

If no trace is found, then the charge is reduced to the "no trace charge" of 5. Applications should be sent to the General Register Office for Scotland, New Register House, Edinburgh EH1 3YT and you can pay by cheque or credit card.

Accessing the 1939 Identity Card Information for Northern Ireland

For Northern Ireland, the records are the responsibility of the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. There is no formal process set up to obtain data but this link takes you to a page on their website telling you how to make a FOI (Freedom of Information) request to the archives.


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