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Tuesday 1 March 2016

Haunted Houses

The 1939 Register
Somewhat obsessively, I have been an active researcher of my family history for over twenty years now, buying countless genealogical resources and subscriptions. Along the way have been some surprising and even astonishing findings, as well as many mundane, but in February when the findmypast site released a new resource, The 1939 Register, I experienced an entirely new reaction.

The 1939 Register

Rather like a census, The 1939 Register records the names and addresses of everyone living in England and Wales on the 29th September, 1939, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. It did not go into as much detail as a normal census, but was carried out in a similar way for wartime purposes: to issue national identification and ration cards, to administer conscription and to plan population movements in the event of mass evacuation. It was later used by the National Health Service at its inception in 1948. As no census was taken in 1941, and as the records for the 1931 census were destroyed by fire during the war, the Register is the most complete survey of the population between the as yet unreleased censuses of 1921 and 1951.

What makes it different for me is that, as a snapshot taken just over a decade before I was born, The 1939 Register is almost contemporary. Other population surveys such as the 1911 census were from so long ago that just about everything has since changed, which will also be true of the 1921 census when they finally let us see it, but much of the information recorded in The 1939 Register remained unchanged into the nineteen-fifties. Many of the same people were at the same addresses as I remember them. If my parents were still around they would be fascinated.

First home
I can see the two-bedroom terraced house my parents rented from 1946, where I first lived. It is occupied by a canal tugman and his family. They had brought up six children there. Wherever did they put them all? 

The people next door are the same as I remember, as are those at the corner shop next-door-but-one. Across the road is the same gentlemen’s hairdresser, then newly married. He would remain there with his wife, childless, for the next thirty years. It was where I used to be sent for my hair cut – short back and sides the only style on offer – every three or four weeks throughout the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties. Once old enough to go unaccompanied, I would wait my turn in the smoky den of his barber’s shop (it would never have been called anything so epicene as a salon) trying to make sense of the swaggering conceits of the older customers. From time to time the hairdresser’s timid wife would materialise at the through-door from the house to leave a cup of tea, and then dematerialise as silently as she had arrived. 

In the mid nineteen-fifties we moved to a new address, up in the world to a small semi-detached house. The 1939 Register shows it occupied by the shipwright’s family we bought it from. The adjoining neighbours were still there when we moved in, father, mother and grown up children. The mother and father would die in the nineteen-sixties but one of their daughters would remain in the house, unmarried, for the next sixty years. The neighbours at the other side are a young widow still in her thirties and her elderly mother. They too were still there when we moved in. The mother died soon afterwards, but the widow remained long after we had left until she died at an advanced age in the nineteen-nineties. Up and down the street are so many other familiar names: the master mariner; the butcher; the mother and her daughter who in turn became the mother of the boys we played with when they visited their grandma. 

The Register is more flexibly searchable than almost any previous resource. Whereas the censuses, for example, can be trawled only in limited ways, The 1939 Register search is so powerful you can find almost anyone, even when they are partially mistranscribed in the index. The main limitation is that you are not supposed to be able to see anyone born less than a hundred years ago, although often you can. In most households, such as my father’s parents’, the children are blacked out, and only the names of the adults are shown. But despite being born in the nineteen-twenties, my mother can be seen with her parents, her name amended after marriage, a result of parts of the Register continuing in use with the National Health Service until 1991.

You can find just about any house built before 1939. In Leeds I can see the elderly couple I lodged with in 1970 at the same Kirkstall address in 1939, although then they are not elderly. The husband is a railway clerk. The address also has one ‘closed’ line for their daughter who would later marry a corporation surveyor and have one son. At other places I lived, much later in some cases, the 1939 residents had moved on long before my time. One through-terrace is occupied by an engineer’s turner and his wife, both born in the eighteen-seventies. Another is occupied by a wool forman with his wife and four children. The only back-to-back I lived in is the home of a shoe repairer and his wife, both in their mid-twenties. At yet another mid-terrace there are nine residents: a couple born in the eighteen-seventies and seven grown up grown-up children. The father and one of the sons are asphalters. Again, how did they fit them all in?

Some houses I have known were larger. In the Levenshulme area of Manchester, in the early nineteen-eighties, I lived in a three-bedroom, bay-windowed terrace with front and back gardens. Next door lived a widow who in 1939 is there with her husband and mother-in-law. The husband, the neighbours and the occupants of my address have mainly clerical occupations. I still have some of the next door neighbour’s late husband’s drill bits and an ancient tobacco tin full of wire staples which she gave me when clearing out her shed. The hardware was probably there in 1939 but the Register lists only people. I lived in yet grander surroundings in the Avenues area of Hull. In my day they were already what are now called HMOs (Houses in Multiple Occupation) but in 1939 they were occupied by the likes of Ministers of Religion, newspaper reporters, merchants, lecturers, collectors of taxes and people of private means. 

Like having the gift of premonition, if you are near my age or older, you look through The 1939 Register and find you knew or can remember so many of those named in it. You know what happened to them, who they married, who their children were and when they died, or at the very least, what became of their houses. Do they return as ghosts to light their coal fires in the mornings, the husbands going off to work and the children to school as they must have done so many times? Do the wives cook and clean for their return? Do they relive their happy days, sad days, sunny days, rainy days, Easters, Christmases and holidays? Will we?


  1. Good search tips. I find I give up to easily when researching family. I'll try this route.

    1. Unfortunately you need a findmypast sub to be able to see the page scans and transcripts. You can search for free, but that doesn't let you look at all the neighbours, which for me is one of the most fascinating aspects. Occasionally though, perhaps a couple of times a year, they have a free weekend with unrestricted access to everything. Watch out for those.

  2. Fascinating I had no idea about these registers.

    1. I wasn't aware of them either until they were released on findmypast in the autumn. Initially they could be seen only on a rather expensive pay-per-view basis, so their change of policy to include them in subscriptions from February was a pleasant surprise.


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