What? No British Censuses for 1931 or 1941?

June 17, 2011  - by 
What? No British Censuses for 1931 or 1941?

As family history enthusiasts, we get one of our best pictures of each family as the censuses are released for public use. We are still celebrating the release of the 1911 census and rejoicing in the information we are gleaning from its pages. At the same time, we are anxiously awaiting the release of the 1921 census around 2021.

Just beyond 2021, we are looking at a drought-filled 20 years without an England and Wales census as we know them. The 1931 census returns, including schedules, enumeration books and plans, were completely destroyed in a fire in Hayes, Middlesex, where the census was being stored. Many precautions had been taken to protect the census, which all failed. To read more about the 1931 census, see http://www.1911census.org.uk/1931.htm.

The 1941 UK census was not taken due to World War II. However, The National Registration Act, 1939, established a National Register “for the issue of identity cards.” This population count took place on 29 September 1939, and provided information for “all persons in the United Kingdom at the appointed time” and “all persons entering or born in the United Kingdom after that time.” The United Kingdom included England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Isle of Man. Forty million people were registered in some 7,000 transcript books. (See the sample page below.) These provide a viable census substitute for the 1941 census. The schedule requested the following information: Name; Sex; Age (not year of birth); Occupation, Profession, trade or employment; Residence; Condition as to marriage; Membership of Naval, Military or Air Force Reserves or Auxiliary Forces or of Civil Defence Services or Reserves.

So, in answer to the title question, there are no censuses for 1931 or 1941, but all is not lost. There is a census substitute for 1941 that we will all learn to use and rely upon. For more information, see “Identity cards in Britain: past experience and policy implications,” by John Agar.

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  1. The 1931 Census material destroyed in the Hayes fire was for England and Wales, the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man and any overseas returns. The Scottish and Northern Irish censuses were administered by their own respective General Register Offices, and as far as I am aware they are still intact.

  2. The September 1939 population count had three purposes
    (1) to enable National Identity Cards to be issued (and, of course, identify residents who were Aliens and not UK subjects)
    (2) to establish names for the issue of ration cards
    and (3) to identify those whose ages would require their registration for compulsory conscription into the Armed Forces.

    There were separate records for (a) England & Wales (b) Scotland and (c) Northern ireland. I assume the Isle of Man had its own records. The records were transferred after the War to what is now the National Health Service and are held separately for each country.

    Access to persons registered under the National Registration Act is limited to those who are deceased. There is no access to people still living. To find out how to access for each of the countries use Google with 1939 National Register + country to find the link. You will probably have to give details of when the person whose details you seek had died. There is a charge for access to the record

    1. Most family historians will now know this –
      the 1939 Register (for England & Wales) is now available on FindMyPast and Ancestry.

      The 1939 Scottish National Identity Register is not searchable. If you know the person’s date of death, you can apply to the National Records of Scotland for a copy of the Register entry , for a fee

      1. It is not actually ‘available’ in total as many entries including people who are dead are not available. As far as the 1921 Census goes the National Records of Scotland have an enlightened view which is to release after 100 years and one day whereas The National Archives is going to make researchers wait for another 6 months.

  3. 1939 Register doesn’t give age as stated, but rather provides actual birthdate – far more useful than census.

  4. I am searching for my great grandfather, Daniel Buchanan. I was told he was very young while playing the bagpipes during World War II . I met him once about 1992. He lived in Ayr. Can anyone help me. I know very little about my Buchanan family. Thank you very much..lindsey rose buchanan

    1. Hello Lindsey. I have a copy of Daniel’s marriage certificate to Catherine Burgoyne Jarvie in 1993 at Ayr. I also have a local newspaper article from 2019 about him. Please get in touch if you would like these. Kind regards, Iain.

  5. Is it the case that in the USA the public can access U.S. census records from e.g. 1930 and 1940 whereas in the UK
    there is no public access until records are at least 100 years old? Are there examples of other more enlightened, less secretive countries than the UK which allow access to more recent census records? Why is public access to all UK census records not covered by the so-called Freedom of Information Act?

    1. Hi Gordon! Thank you for your questions. I can’t speak on privacy regulations pertaining to public records country by country. I would suspect that this info would be available online by country for you to seek if that’s of interest to you. I do know that in the US, Census Records are protected for 72 years, which means that all US Censuses are publicly available from 1790 through 1940. In 2022, the 1950 US Census will become available. In the UK, it is 100 years. Hope this helps! Thank you for reading the blog!

      1. Yes in the UK there is no public access to census records until they are 100 years old – very frustrating for people interested in family history. This seems very strange to me – why does ‘Freedom of Information’ not apply. So e.g. I am not able to look at my mother’s household for 1921 but I can access the Will of a complete stranger?!! Thanks for your reply.

        1. Hi Gordon! You can file a Freedom of Information request and see if they will grant you access to the specific record you are wanting.

          1. Hi Amy, thanks for your reply. I read that the UK census records for 1931 were all lost in a fire and there was no census in 1941 because of the war.
            However, even if both existed they would not be available to the general public because of UK’s 100 year rule. I wouldn’t wish anyone (including me) to have to make a specific request under FOI – I just think that all census records should be readily available.

  6. Hi, I am looking for my mother. Mary Nora Cassidy Born in Oct 1934 Married Albert Norman Alder in Sept 1951

    1. You should try the website BMD
      (which of course stands for Births, Marriages and Deaths) this is run by volunteers and is free to use.
      Try a wider search of plus or minus five years for starters.
      I have found a Mary N Cassidy born the last quarter of 1932 in Salford who’s mother’s maiden name was Halligan (your grandmother?)
      Hope this helps

  7. Thanks for your informative response. My point is however the inexplicable fixation the U.K. has with seemingly
    pointless secrecy. Even if the 1931 Census returns were in tact we as family historians would still be denied access
    until 2031 – why? Why e.g. would it be so bad for me to look-up details of where my own grandparents were living in 1951? By comparison I can e.g. access the far more personal information contained in the Last Will and Testament
    of a complete stranger who died only last year!

    1. It’s because those are the terms under which people were asked to provide their personal information.

      These Censuses are not State secrets, they are data obtained from private individuals who were promised it would be taken for a specific purpose and not publicly released under after the presumed death of anyone in the census.

      They differ from a Will which is a public declaration made by a person about how they wish their Estate to be distributed and is by necessity available to anyone to read.

  8. How can you track your ancestry when it’s a period between 1931 to 1941 I want to know where certain persons were working in service.