UK Population Survey Of 1939 Holds Secrets Of Pre-War Life

07/11/2015 11:27 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

On the eve of World War II, 65,000 enumerators were employed to visit every house in England and Wales to interview the civil population; an estimated 41 million people.

The UK National Archives has now made public the historical ‘1939 Register’, an important historical document that shows what life was like for a population on the brink of catastrophe. The newly digitised records of the 1939 Register are now launched online by

This information was used to issue Identity Cards, ration books, plan mass evacuations and co-ordinate other war-time provisions. In the longer term, the 1939 Register would go on to play a central role in the establishment of post-war services like the NHS.

The new set of records list every single person who was in the UK on the day, including individuals and relatives of a range of notable and famous people including Julie Andrews, Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill.

Notable Australians include: Kylie and Dannii Minogue -- their great-great Grandfather Morgan John Riddiford and his brother.

Julia Gillard's great grandparents (Wales)

Olivia Newton-John's father -- Brin Newton-John was an M15 officer at Bletchley Park working on the Enigma Project. He took Rudolf Hess into custody and interrogated him after he parachuted into Scotland.

The 1939 Register is the only surviving record of the population between 1921 and 1951, bridging a 30-year gap in history. Vicki Dawson from Findmypast told the Huffington Post Australia the information is of great importance to historians as well as people researching family trees.

“You can now put an ancestor in a certain place at a certain time. You can understand who was in the house at that time, the exact address. A lot of times when people are building their family tree there is a lot of guess work. But this information is all completely accurate as it was used to issue ID cards and ration books and make plans for war time," Dawson said.

“These documents are so important because there are huge gaps in records from the UK. The 1931 census was destroyed by fire and the 1941 census was never taken due to WWII. So 1939 is a fascinating snapshot of an entire population on the eve of war. On the register, nobody was exempt -- even the King and Queen were there, plus all the staff had to be accounted for.”

Comprising 1.2 million pages in 7,000 volumes, the 1939 Register captures the details of people whose lives were about to change forever. It records streets that within months, under the assault of the Luftwaffe, were to disappear; families that would be separated by the events of war: evacuation, conscription and sometimes worse.

Life in 1939

Mr and Mrs 1939: The typical 1939 woman was Mary Smith, 35 years old. She was married to the average 1939 man, John or William, 33 years old. The chance of them divorcing was just 0.1 per cent.

John or William and Mary were the most common first names with Smith, Jones and Williams the top 3 most popular surnames. The city with highest number of Marys was Liverpool (36,000) followed by Manchester and Birmingham. The most Williams were living in Birmingham (39,000) while every 7th male in Liverpool was called John (37,000)

Taken within weeks of the mass evacuation of children to the country, the Register shows an almost entire adult population in some London boroughs, with just 2 per cent being children under age of ten.

James Bond creator Ian Fleming stated his main occupation as ‘Stockbroker’ despite an alternative career in Naval Intelligence, whilst the grandfather of Victoria Beckham was working on the London Docks and living in Tottenham.

Famous Lives in 1939:

The real life M: the real life inspiration for the Bond books can be found in the 1939 Register on the eve of war. Hugh Sinclair (given the codename ‘Quex’) was director of British Intelligence and set up the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6). He bought Bletchley Park with his own money and set up a wartime intelligence station. Although in 1939, (listed as a retired Admiral with no mention of his intelligence work), he was suffering from cancer which he would die of a month later, the year before he reported on Adolf Hitler to the Prime Minister, describing him as a dangerous megalomaniac not to be trusted. The report was buried because it didn’t align with appeasement policies of the time.

Ian Fleming – Already in September 1939, Ian Fleming had been recruited into Naval Intelligence, where he would gain much of the inspiration for his James Bond novels. He lived in Westminster, listing his primary occupation as ‘Stockbroker’ with only an extra column revealing his work as a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the Admiralty building.

ian fleming

Ian Fleming.Picture supplied

Oswald Mosley – The leader of the British Union of Fascists can be found at his Mayfair home with a conspicuous omission of his notorious position as head of the British Blackshirt movement, instead harking back to former glories as a military officer, MP and government minister. Less than a year later he was interned as a potential enemy of the state and spent most of the war living with his family in the grounds of Holloway Prison.

oswald mosley

Oswald Mosley.Picture supplied

Future Prime Minister: Although a year away from becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was listed living as first lord of the admiralty in central London. Later additions to the 1939 Register, as a living document have seen his old occupation lined through and ‘Prime Minister’ added.

winston churchill

Winston Churchill.Picture supplied

Barnes Wallis: Already working on aircraft and bomb design by the time of the 1939 Register, Barnes Wallis, the inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’ famous for its use in the Dambusters raids was listed with his wife, children and children’s nurse near Guildford. Barnes loved the area so much that he spent most of his adult life there, becoming a parish councillor and being buried in the local church.

barnes wallis

Barnes Wallis.Picture supplied

Herman Goering - Although the President of the Reichstag and head of the Luftwaffe had his hands full directing waves of aircraft to attack British shores, an unfortunately named Birmingham born and based doppelganger made an honest living as a jewellery case maker in 1939. Sadly he didn’t live to see out the end of the war though his namesake didn’t last till much long after it, being sentenced to death for his part in the war crimes of the Nazi regime.

herman goering

Herman Goering.Picture supplied

Joseph Kennedy: The father of US President John F. Kennedy, Joseph was in the UK at the time of the 1939 Register, with the future President himself present in the House of Commons during speeches endorsing British entry into the war just before the register was taken. Joseph Kennedy is listed as ambassador to the United Kingdom at the time.

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