My Family in 1939

Here in the UK, a census has been taken almost every ten years since 1841. There were a few censuses before that, but before 1841 they only counted people – they didn’t include lists of names.

These census records are released 100 years after the date of the census and this data is of great interest to genealogists. The most recent census that we have access to is from 1911 and the one from 1921 will be released at the start of 2022.

But occasionally, other records emerge that are almost as useful as a census. For example, in September 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, the British government took a national register which was used to issue identity cards to everyone.

Last November, FindMyPast made the contents of this register available to everyone. Initially I didn’t look at it as I have a FindMyPast subscription and I was annoyed that this didn’t cover the new records. I assumed that eventually the new data would be rolled into my existing subscription, so I decided to wait.

I didn’t have to wait very long. Yesterday I got access to the records. So I settled down last night to find out what I could about my ancestors in 1939. As it turned out, it didn’t take long. There were only ten of them and they were split across four households.


This is most of my father’s family. You can see his parents, James and Ivy Cross. They are living with Ivy’s parents George and Lily Clarke. George worked for Greene King all of his life (for over sixty years) and this is the last job he did for them – running an off-licence in Holland-on-Sea. James and Ivy lived in the same building until James died in 1970. I remember spending a lot of time there when I was a child. I even have vague memories of George who died when I was three or four.

My father was born three months after this register was taken – in January 1940 – so it’s interesting to note that Ivy is, at this time, six months pregnant.


Just down the road are the rest of my father’s family – James’ parents Albert and Lily Cross living with their daughter (my great-aunt) Grace. Albert’s father (another James) was the lifeboatman who I have written about before.


Looking a bit further afield, we find most of my mother’s family living in Thorpe-le-Soken. You’ll see my great-grandparents, Robert and Agnes Sowman, along with three closed records. Records are closed if the people in them are born less than 100 years ago and aren’t known to have died. The first two closed records here are my grandmother, Cecilia, and her sister Margaret. Both of these woman are no longer alive, so I should be able to get FindMyPast to open these records by sending them copies of their death certificates. The third closed record will be for Constance, the third daughter in the family.


And finally, here’s the final part of my family. Maud Turpin, living alone in Maldon. Maud is Agnes Sowman’s mother. Actually, this record showed me the only piece of information that I didn’t already know. Previously, I wasn’t sure when Maud’s husband Alfred died. He was still alive in the 1911 census and this record gives me strong evidence that he died before 1939. I think I’ve found a good candidate for his death record in 1931.

So that’s a pretty good summary of what you’ll find in the 1939 register. It’s a good substitute for a census (particularly as there was no census in 1941 – as the country was too busy fighting a war) and it’s nice that it’s not covered by census privacy laws, so it has been released to the public about 25 years sooner than you might expect. But, certainly in my case, I already had a lot of knowledge about my family in this period so I didn’t learn very much that was new. If I had paid the £7 per household that FindMyPast had initially asked for, I think I would have been very disappointed.

I should point out that You don’t just get this information. Each results page gives a map (actually, a selection of maps) showing where your ancestors lived. This is a nice touch. There are also random newspaper cuttings and photos from the locality. You might find these interesting – I really didn’t.

Has anyone else used these records yet? Have you found anything interesting?

p.s. And yes, if you’re paying close attention, you’ll notice that there’s one grandparent missing from my list above. Ask me about that in the pub one day.

Genealogy Primer

A friend saw me mention my interest in genealogy and asked for some tips on getting started. Rather than letting my reply languish as a comment inside the Facebook Walled Garden, I thought it would be worth publishing it here too.

This is a very quick introduction. If there’s enough interest, I might write it up more fully. This works for families in England and Wales. Scotland and Ireland have similar systems in place.

  1. Talk to people. Talk to your parents to get information about their parents. What were their full names? Where were they born? When were they born? Are your grandparents still alive? Can you get similar details from them about their parents? Can aunts and uncles fill in gaps? Do your grandparents have brothers or sisters who are still alive and who you can talk to?
  2. Search FreeBMD to confirm the details that you have. At some point you’ll need to take the references you get from FreeBMD and use them to buy birth, marriage and death certificates from the GRO. This is when it starts to get expensive. Each certificate is £9.25. But they’re essential as birth and marriage certificates will have information on the previous generation.
  3. Using info from 1 & 2 above you should have enough details to get you back to 1911. That’s the most recent census that is available for searching. And things get more expensive as all access to the census is commercial. I have an annual subscription for Find My Past, but other sites (e.g. Ancestry) are available. I think that Find My Past might have an exclusive licence for the 1911 census.
  4. Find your family on the 1911 census. That will give more information that will enable you to get back to the 1901 census. Or to go back to FreeBMD and the GRO for more certificates.
  5. Rinse and repeat. You should find it simple enough to get back to the first useful census (in 1841) and the start of civil registration of births, deaths and marriages (in 1837). Earlier than that and you need other sources like parish records.

Internet Genealogy

In 1992 I started tracing my family history. The two main tools for amateur genealogists (at least until they get back to about 1840) are the indexes of registrations of births, deaths and marriages and the returns from the census which has been taken every ten years since 1841 (there are earlier censuses, but they don’t record individual names).

Back when I started, accessing these records was a painfully manual process. The BMD indexes were held in large leather-bound volumes in St Catherine’s House on the Aldwych. The members of the public were free to search these volumes looking for references to their ancestors. Once you had the reference numbers you needed, you could fill in a form, pay £5.50 and a week or so later a copy of the certificate would drop through your letterbox.

The census records were slightly easier to deal with. They had been scanned onto film and microfiche, so you had to go to the Public Record Office on Chancery Lane to spend hours searching for your ancestors’ names – often written in a hard to read nineteenth century hand. And, of course,  the records were ordered by parish, so if your ancestors moved it became a very hit and miss affair. I spent many days hunched over a microfiche reader or risking physical damage by lugging the oversized BMD indexes around and I still have piles of notebooks full of the notes I took over fifteen years ago.

I largely stopped research several years ago. It was just too hard to make much progress. I didn’t have the time to put into in. Towards the end of the period I was working on the project the census and BMD records were both brought together in the Family Records Centre in Islington, but the basic process was still just the same.

Recently I decided to get back into tracing my family tree. And I’m amazed to see how much things have changed in  the intervening years. These days you can do most of what I did fifteen years ago from the comfort of your own home. All of the census records are available online as are a large proportion of the BMD indexes. I put this down to a combination of two factors. Firstly the Public Records Office (who own the census) and the General Register Office (who own the BMD data) have become more aware of the potential of sharing this data across the internet. And secondly there has been a massive increase in the public’s interest in genealogy. This is obvious from the success of TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are and the large number of family history magazines that are published each month.

It hasn’t all been successful. When the 1901 census was first put online in 2002, the site soon collapsed under the strain and remained unavailable for over six months. These days the government just licenses the data to commercial organisations like Ancestry and FindMyPast and lets them deal with the scaling issues. This leads to a slightly confusing situation where different companies have access to different sets of census data and you might end up having to pay more than one company in order to have access to all of the data you need. It’s not ideal but it’s far better than it was when I started out.

For example, all of the census search sites have indexed the data. That means that you’re no longer just skimming scans of the original documents. You can search for names and you’ll be given a list of matching records from anywhere in the country. That has helped me track down a large number of previously missing ancestors. Of course, you’re relying on someone else’s interpretation of nineteenth centrury handwriting, but you get used to typical transcription errors. I’m finding that my mother’s surname, Sowman, is often mistranscribed as “Lowman”. An easy mistake to make if you see the original document.

BMD records are also being indexed. But at a slower rate. A wonderful project called FreeBMD are working on it. Currently their coverage is great for the nineteenth century, but patchier for the twentieth. They’re working on that though and are still looking for volunteers to help with the project.

Soon after I started out, in the 90s, I bought a book called “The Genealogists Internet”. To be honest it was rather a desultory affair. There wasn’t much out there and what there was had been created by genealogists with very little knowledge of the power of the internet. Recently I bought a copy of the fourth edition. And what a change their has been. These days the internet has amazing amounts of genealogical data available. The book’s web site has a links section which I’m still working my way through almost a month later. Plenty of interesting stuff there.

If you’re interested in tracing your family tree then now is a great time to start. You can make great progress just sitting in front of your computer. I’ve got my tree back to the late eighteenth century without any trouble at all. And I’m from a line of complete peasants who made no mark on the world at all.

If you try to trace your family (or if you already have), I’d be very interested in hearing how you did.

Nicholas Crosse son of John Crosse

The earliest confirmed ancestor that I’ve found is Thomas Cross, my 5 x Great Grandfather, who married Hannah Canham in Great Holland (only a few miles from where my parents still live) in February 1776.

On Wednesday I was in the Society of Genealogists library and I found a lovely bound copy of the parish registers for Beaumont-cum-Moze – a tiny village in the same area. In the book I found a small number of references to a Cross family, and this is the earliest. It’s from 1583 and it says “Nicholas Crosse son of John Crosse was baptized the xvj of Julye”. The book also contains “John Crosse was buryed the vjth ffebruary” in 1588 and “Joan Crosse widdow was buryed xiij of Aprill” in 1589. I wonder what happened to Nicholas after that.

It seems that my family don’t move around much, so I’m pretty sure that John, Joan and Nicholas will be some kind of relation to me. I just have a gap of about 200 years to bridge in order to prove it.

Nice to have something to aim at though.