2 November 2015 was an auspicious day for family and local historians. The 1939 Register,
known colloquially as The Wartime Domesday Book, was released.
The Register was a reaction by the British Government to the threat of war. Forty-one
million people were listed by 65,000 enumerators. Their records showed the name,
full date of birth, address, marital status and the specific occupation of the vast
majority of the population. It was in effect an interim census.
The so-called Hundred Years privacy rule means that unless an individual noted in
the Register died after 1939, their details cannot be viewed if they were born after
1915. This means that in the example and the schedule below, if the record of a household
has a note that the details of a member or members are officially ‘closed’, this
refers to individual(s) who are aged twenty-four or under.
The Register was used to issue National Identity cards, for rationing and, when WW2
ended, to set up the National Health Service. As a consequence, some details such
as addresses were updated. Single women who married between the summer of 1939 and
around 1945 also had their details altered. For example, in the piece below, my aunt
Margaret (‘Maggie’) Wray’s name has been altered to Whitby after she married Ron
Whitby in the latter part of 1939. Likewise, my mother’s name was also altered from
Mills to Wray after her marriage to Dad in 1945.
Below is a sample of the Register which shows the residents at Chequers Cottages,
Preston including my father, Sam Wray, and his mother, Emily.
The reason that folk are so stirred up by the release of the Register is that the
1921 census will probably not be released until 2022, the 1931 census was destroyed;
there was no census in 1941 with Britain in the grip of war and the 1951 census will
not be available for more than thirty-five years. Therefore, the Register is an important
snapshot of who lived where at a time when there are as yet no census details, albeit
it is basically a searchable data base like a national electoral register which includes
occupations and full dates of birth.
In the case of Preston, I have copies of several years of electoral registers. These
include the records from 1930 and 1951. (The electoral registers for the mid-1930’s
are at the British Library, not Hertfordshire Archives.) By checking these registers
it is possible to say where most of the inhabitants of the village were living in
1939. As viewing fifteen households costs almost £55 - and there were more than seventy
households at Preston in 1939 - it is far, far cheaper to drive to the National Archives
(where the full details of the Register can be viewed for free!) than downloading
the entire Register of the village now to discover the occupations of villagers.
In the meantime, here is a summary of the people of Preston aged over twenty-four
years in 1939 and their likely abodes: