The 1939 National Register has shot up in importance for genealogists because, with the loss of the 1926 Census for Northern Ireland (see news story), there will be a gaping hole in census resources for the six counties until the 1937 census is released in 2038. The Register, however, was an emergency quasi-census taken within weeks of WW2 being declared and is not subject to the normal 100-year closure legislation. It isn't open to all comers, either; access to the records is controlled under Freedom of Information rules and a form of the 100-year-rule is applied.
Trouble is, with the returns unindexed, identifying a particular individual in the Register has been difficult. There is no name index. It can be searched only by address, and even that isn't straightforward, as you'll see below.
But a bit of history on the cataloguing project first...
Cataloguing project Stage One
Stage One of the project to catalogue the Register returns was carried out before the 2012 move to PRONI's shiny new premises in the Titanic Quarter. This saw the development of a 'working list' or inventory of the 700-odd volumes. This working list basically made some sense of the paperwork and means staff now have a summary of the townlands or streets included in each volume.
This doesn't mean that it is now easy peasy to locate returns for specific addresses. As David Huddleston, Head of Records Management, Cataloguing and Access for PRONI, explained to Irish Genealogy News, a logical 'clustering' of locations doesn't seem to have been part of the original binding process. 'While you might expect that all the returns for one street – even a long street – would have been filed together, this isn't always the case. Often, the returns for just one Belfast street might have been filed across several registers.
'Some of the registers have been bound according to the alphabet, for example. Others by proximity. More still in no discernable order whatsoever. While the returns for a small rural village might be found within, say, only two registers, one urban street might be filed in no numerical sequence in a couple of dozen registers. Some registers hold returns for locations in several counties.'
The Stage One working list helps PRONI staff to narrow down to a selection of registers for particular streets and townlands, but the list doesn't include house numbers or family names, or any other identifiers. So, if the street you're researching covers several registers, staff have to look through all of them, even if you provide the exact house number and fullest address.
No wonder, then, that PRONI hasn't exactly encouraged applications for details from the Register. While PRONI's website has a big chunk of general information about applying for data under the Freedom of Information Act, there is no specific section of the website dedicated to this particular wartime resource.
This will, however, be corrected shortly. See 'PRONI website update' below.
Cataloguing project Stage Two
Stage Two of the cataloguing project will take this intermediary update a step further. It will include a full introduction or summary to the resource and how to get the best from it (PRONI already has many excellent such summaries for a number of family history collections), but more research will need to be carried out to answer some of the most obvious questions that will be raised. At the moment, for example, it's not known if there are any gaps in coverage (it's feasible that some returns never reached the central collating office). Some of the codes used on the right-hand of the register returns (see image of a 1939 National Register entry) will also need to be completely nailed down, to facilitate interpretation.
Stage Two of the cataloguing project may get underway, depending on staffing and resource levels, in the autumn. In the meantime:
PRONI website update
PRONI intends to update their website with a short page of information about applying for details from the 1939 National Register. This will be done quickly, perhaps by the end of this week.
Although this page won't go into huge detail about the Register itself, it will explain exactly what information can be divulged and how to apply. It will make clear that applications are by address and not by individual and will also clarify the 100-year-closure-rule that PRONI has always applied for these FOI applications:
- Details of all inhabitants of an address are disclosed only if ALL those inhabitants would now be more than 100 years old. There is no need to provide proof of death.
- Details of any inhabitant of an address who would, if still alive, not have reached his/her 100th birthday are not disclosed unless proof of his/her death are provided (or the applicant is that inhabitant). Details of all the other inhabitants are disclosed without need for proof of death.
How many researchers have applied?
David told me there have been fewer than 100 FOI applications for information from the 1939 National Register in the three years since two challenges, one of them by the Council of Irish Genealogical Organisations, achieved the landmark victory that opened up some level of access to it. A few applications have been unsuccessful because the address wasn't provided, while others have failed because the individuals about whom the researcher was enquiring were not at the expected address. But most have been successful when both address and proof of death (copy death certificate or a published death notice) have been supplied, as required.