Atcherleys on the eve of World War Two – the 1939 Register

A fascinating glimpse into the lives of Atcherley family members across England on the eve of the Second World War has been provided by the release, on Monday, of the 1939 Register. Available at Findmypast, in partnership with The National Archives (TNA), the register is a unique and valuable record. Gathering less information than a census, but more than an electoral roll, the register was not a static record. Changes of names (and also the deaths) of those listed were recorded, and post-war the register was used in the establishment of the National Health Service. The NHS then maintained and updated the register until 1991.

National Registration Identity Card 1943Plans for the compilation of the national register had been made in advance. Britain’s declaration of war on 3 September 1939 was therefore followed by National Registration Day just a few weeks later on 29 September. It recorded the name, address, date of birth, marital status and occupation of almost every man, woman and child in the land, household by household, and was used as the basis for issuing identity cards. Since the 1931 census of England and Wales was destroyed during the course of the war, and no census was taken in 1941 because of the conflict, the 1939 Register fills a 30 year gap between the census of 1921 and that of 1951.

Of course, the census of 1921 is not yet available to the public (we will not see it until 2022) and viewing the 1951 census is, at best, a distant prospect. For those with family history mysteries in the more recent past, and genealogists tracing descendants of families found in earlier records, into the 20th century, the potential value of the 1939 register is huge.

Until Findmypast’s release of the 1939 Register, copies of records relating to deceased people listed on it could be obtained from the National Health Service Information Centre at a cost of £42 per person. (This service only came about within the last few years following an appeal to the Information Commissioner.) The current situation is therefore a big improvement in many ways. For a cost of between £6.95 and £3.66 (depending on the package of credits purchased) it is now possible to view a whole page from the register (with details of those people likely to be still living redacted) online, and download the image to your computer.

These costs, even though much-reduced, have drawn some criticism. For those who only want to see a small number of records, I really don’t see the fees charged as much of a barrier. For those of us conducting one-name or one-place studies on the other hand, the expense involved in looking at a larger number of records is prohibitive. No doubt the cost will come down in time (though it seems that the records will not become part of a standard Findmypast subscription), but only after the company has recovered its not inconsiderable outlay on conserving the original documents, digitising them and transcribing their contents. (For those able to get to The National Archives, the online records can be viewed there without charge.)

The good news is that a surprising amount of information can be extracted from the 1939 Register, wherever you are in the world, for free. A basic search for the name or names of interest to you will hopefully yield one or more pages of results listing, for each person: first and last names, birth year, and the Borough or District, and county, in which they lived. For each person, clicking a Preview button then reveals a little additional information. (Originally this included the TNA Reference for the record, this has now been replaced with the name of one of the other residents of the household, if applicable. Although Findmypast has publicly stated that the TNA reference would be reinstated, this has not happened. This handy tool can be used to extract the reference from the URL of a record preview page.)

Of course, as with any dataset of this nature, finding the person or people you are looking for is not always straightforward. Findmypast were contractually obliged to meet a transcription accuracy rate in readable records at at least 98%. I would however be surprised if that has happened with the Atcherleys. So far I have found members of this family indexed under the following surnames: Atcherely, Acherley, Archerley, Atcherty, Atcheley, Atsherley, Atchenley, Atchesley, Acchesley, Atlerley, ?cherley, Atch?ley, Atchway, Stekerley. And, in two cases where the surname completed defeated the transcriber, “~???”. On top of that, Phyllis Atcherley is indexed solely under the surname which she acquired by marriage in 1948, Glasspoole. Finding Atcherleys who are lost in transcription is of course not a new game for me.

The other search fields (besides first and last names) available for hunting people in the 1939 register – such as Date of Birth – can be very useful for tracking down those whose names have been mangled (whether on the original register or by the transcriber). But their usefulness goes beyond this. Once you have found someone for whom you do not have a date of birth, for example, you can repeat your search with the same parameters but with the addition of a possible month as well as year of birth and then, once you have narrowed the date down to the correct month, continue the process with the day of the month.

1939 Register search screenPart of the 1939 Register advanced search screen on the Findmypast website.

This can be (and usually is) the long-winded process it sounds like, but if you have a birth registration quarter and/or a baptism date, plus a good supply of patience, you have a starting point from which you can work backwards. Be warned, you may find some dates of birth which do not match up with those given in people’s death records. I have found a number of cases where the day and month looks correct but the year of birth was changed by those who had memory lapses or who wished to appear a little younger than they really were! Another date of birth (that of Ethel May Atcherley, née Hall) was completely different to that in her death record, but was probably the correct version and has provided a clue which might help me to find out who she was before she became an Atcherley.

A similar process can be followed to establish whether a person was single, married, widowed or divorced, or in some cases to confirm the name of a street or place where you suspect (based on other records such as electoral rolls, directories, BMD records or passenger lists for example) a person was living. If you know or can make a good guess as to the field of work in which a person was engaged in 1939, you may even be able to obtain confirmation by adding one or more carefully chosen words into the occupation field. For many ‘housewives’ the phrase used was “unpaid domestic duties”.

Using clues such as the TNA reference number (see above) and the totals given on the preview page for the numbers of other people in the household, you can also link together all the people for whom records are open into household units.

Using the above techniques, I have compiled a detailed list of the Atcherley family members who can be viewed in the 1939 Register, presented in a similar fashion to my census abstracts on a new page: Census etc. 1930s. To the information which I have been able to extract for free, I have added information from other sources, plus notes and corrections. In the case of the small number of households for which I have paid to view register pages (two of those households were on the same page), I have also added the additional data found on them.

The result of my efforts is an incomplete but (I hope) still valuable overview of where the various members of the Atcherley family were, and what they doing, on the eve of the last World War. I won’t look at every single household in this article, but I will give a number of examples of what I have found.

Samuel Atcherley of Altrincham in Cheshire was a calico print designer according to the census of 1901 and 1911. My interrogation of the 1939 Register database revealed that the phrase “designer calico” formed part of Sam’s job title nearly 30 years later in 1939. Sadly, so did the word ‘unemployed’. Adding the address given in Samuel’s burial record of 1940 – Hawthorn Avenue – shows that he was living there in 1939. The birth date given for his wife Olive (Gidman) – 17 Oct 1873 – was clearly in error, as her birth was registered in the first quarter of that year and she was baptised on 30 Mar 1873. From these facts it appears that she was probably born on 17 Oct 1872, and that the registration of her birth was delayed for well over two months.

Another Samuel Atcherley living in Cheshire was Samuel Thomas Atcherley. A Kelly’s Directory of 1929 shows that this Samuel was then a fried fish dealer, of 7 Wilmslow Road in Cheadle (the same address he gave when he remarried in 1947). Including Wilmslow Road in my search parameters confirmed that he was there in 1939, and I also scored a hit with the word ‘fish’ in the Occupation field (but not with ‘fried’, ‘dealer’, ‘shop’, ‘retailer’,  etc.).

Finding Mary Elizabeth Hope Atcherley in Chester County Borough was no surprise as I know from other sources that she was living at Laburnum Cottage, Dee Banks from 1936 until her death in 1963. But where was her sister Hester Mary Eleanor Atcherley, who lived there with her? Looking at all results for the page on which Mary (or Hope as she was usually known) appeared reveals a “Hect? M E Acherley”, apparently born on 18 April 1895 (very close to the date given in Hester’s baptism record and a contemporary newspaper birth notice: 15 April 1895).

Finding sisters Marian and Kate Mary Atcherley was more challenging. However I knew that they had been living at Aldenham Avenue, Radlett, Hertfordshire shortly before 1939. A search for Marian (with name variants) born 1860, living in Hertfordshire revealed “Marion ~???” and she still showed up when I added Aldenham to the Place Keywords. On the next line of the page was “Kate M ~???”. Despite Kate’s date of birth being given as 1 September 1931 (rather than 1867!) I remain convinced that she was Kate Mary Atcherley, Marian’s sister.

One of the Atcherleys who I have not found on the 1939 Register is David Francis William Atcherley (see David Atcherley’s World War Two – Part 1). As David was serving with the RAF, his exclusion is not a surprise (service personnel were mostly excluded from the register). However, his twin brother Richard (also of the RAF, but presumably on leave) was on the register – and what interesting company he was keeping! As “Llewellyn R A Atcherley (Richard)” he was recorded at an address in Richmond along with nine other people, including Sir Henry Barwell, Lady Anne G Barwell and their daughter Mary. The one resident whose presence with Richard Atcherley makes sense is Geoffrey D Stephenson. He was a member of the Royal Air Force aerobatic team before the war.

Staffordshire - Batchacre Cottages, Shebdon
Batchacre Cottages, Shebdon, Staffordshire

As already mentioned, I have of course not been able to resist looking at some actual 1939 Register pages. The first was the one on which my grandparents Fred and Louisa Atcherley appeared, living at Batchacre Cottages in the Staffordshire parish of Shebdon. The redacted record on the line below them would be for their daughter, my mother, who died in 2013. I learned nothing new about Fred and Louisa (nor would I learn anything new if I sent a scan of Mum’s death certificate to Findmypast to get her record opened). However it was interesting to see the other farm workers who lived alongside them, and to see the farmer who Fred almost certainly worked for – a view of the wider picture of which my grandparents’ lives formed a part.

The couple living ‘next door’ to Fred and Louisa were of particular interest. I recognised the name George Ernest Nagington as soon as I saw it, as Mary, his wife, was born Mary Atcherley and was a first cousin of Fred’s. I knew about George and Mary, and their children (two of whom were likely to be named in the redacted entries making up the remainder of the Nagington household). But I did not know that they had been neighbours of Fred, Louisa and Mum. I remember that when I first learned of their existence, and told Mum, she said that there were Nagington children at her school. Thanks to the 1939 Register, I think I have grounds for believing that the Nagingtons Mum knew of were possibly, unknown to her, second cousins!

Picture credits. National Registration Identity Card: Public domain image taken from Wikimedia Commons. Findmypast 1939 Register advanced search screen: screen grab from Findmypast website. Batchacre Cottages, Shebdon: photo © Copyright Andy and Hilary, taken from Geograph and adapted, used and made available for re-use under a Creative Commons licence.