Genealogist requests release of 1939 ‘census’

A Genealogist and Freedom of Information campaigner has requested that the 1939 National Identification Survey be released under Freedom of Information laws, reports the BBC Website.

In September 1939 the Government conducted a an emergency, census-like survey of the country at the beginning of the war. This would provide invaluable help to researchers, historians and family history enthusiasts in unlocking the past.

Until recently each census was released 100 years later. However, Guy Etchells succesfully campaigned for the early release of the 1911 census, which became available online earlier this year. Professionals and enthusiasts alike will be hoping that the 1911 challenge proves to be a test case.

There is another census due for release, the 1921 census in 2022. The 1931 census was destroyed in a fire and there was no survey taken in 1941 because of the war. It may be more than 40 years until the 1951 details become public. This effectively leaves family historians with a dead end for some years to come.

None of the legislation forbids access to the records,” says Mr Etchells. “The records have been kept so that people can access them. They are not archived so that they can be hidden away. There’s no point in charging people thousands of pounds a year to keep them if you are not allowed to access them.”

The Information Commissioner has told the NHS Information Centre – which holds the 1939 details – that it should grant Mr Etchells’ request for access to a record, previously withheld on data protection grounds, where the circumstances relate to people now dead – a stipulation Mr Etchells may yet challenge further.

The National Registration survey led to the issuing of 46 milliona National Identity cards, Households were asked to provide information about the names, ages, sex, marital situation and jobs of those living there. During the war, and until 1952, every civilian had to carry their card as proof of identity and address. The registration was also used as the basis for the issue of ration books for food and clothing.

The 1939 survey would be a goldmine for researchers. In particular, it would help us unlock the secrets of most of the generation who fought in the second world war. For example, I could use the survey to cross reference against the list of portsmouth war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s roll of honour. It would make it so much easier for their stories to be told.

Personally, I think there is no sound reason for witholding such information for so long. There is surely no need for the NHS to keep such data locked away, there is nothing sensitive contained in the records. Even with the regular census, 50 year closure periods would be more appropriate. Lets hope that the authorities see sense and make the 1939 survey available.



Filed under debate, Family History, Local History, News, social history, World War Two

3 responses to “Genealogist requests release of 1939 ‘census’

  1. Guy Etchells

    Access to the 1921 census

    In times of economic stress such as these the government might be open to any idea that could generate useful revenue and the 1921 census is one such project.

    A way to generate income, provide jobs and boost the economy all at the same time without making cuts.
    Such a policy must be popular with the electorate.

    The National Audit Office report on the release of the 1901 census stated that the internet access to the 1901 generated revenues of £4.5 million by October 2003, less than one year.
    In five years that amounts to a conservative sum of £22.5 million and useful figure for even a government to play with.

    I would therefore like to suggest a campaign to encourage the government to release the 1921 now.
    Now is the time to write to Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament we may be able to obtain a change in policy.

    I have added a posting to the new hmg Your Freedom site

    If you want access to the 1921 census please visit and add your vote there
    Your vote is important please use it

  2. James Daly

    Hi Guy,

    I think thats a great idea. Even better if they small profit made could be ringfenced to provide access to other records? I think people would be happy to pay if they knew that their contribution was going towards an ongoing programme of making records accessible.


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