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One of the most useful pieces of information on the 1939 Register is the date of birth, since there are no other country-wide records containing birth dates other than civil registration records. Finding a birth date on the Register has solved a brick wall I had for one of my great grandfathers with a very common name; without this information I was unable to determine which birth certificate was the correct one.

But, how accurate is the date of birth field on the 1939 Register? I am not talking about FindMyPast's transcription accuracy – which does leave something to be desired. Rather, has anyone systematically assessed how accurate is the original data?

I understand that no evidence of date of birth was required when householders filled in the National Registration schedule. In browsing the records I have come across a few records with incorrect birth year or birth days. However, given that the Register was later used as the basis for NHS registers, I would hope that errors in the data would be reasonably small.

I think it is important to assess the data accuracy because a lot of birth dates on family trees will be drawn from this dataset – it is a much cheaper alternative to obtaining a birth certificate. If 1% of birth dates are incorrect, that may be acceptable, but if 20% are incorrect then we may need to treat this birth date data with extreme caution.

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    My problem is - how would we assess accuracy, other than asking individuals, which gets us only small numbers - anecdotal evidence only, I suggest. I certainly don't have that many exact birth dates for the 1939 and on at least one of those, it's the birth certificate that's wrong. I haven't checked him yet to see whether he has the official but incorrect date in the 1939. If we were to survey people, would I trust them to identify people correctly enough to identify bad dates? Or would people say "I can't find them so it must be their birthday that's wrong"? Regardless of the real reason?
    – AdrianB38
    Jun 26, 2016 at 23:20
  • @AdrianB38 Indeed that's a difficulty, but I still think it's an important question to consider, even though we can never put an absolute number on it. I suppose a 1939 Register birthdate matching the birth certificate can be reasonably assumed to be "correct", while a mismatch could be due to an error on the 1939 Register, the birth certificate, or both.
    – Harry V.
    Jul 6, 2016 at 16:44

4 Answers 4

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For my one-place study of a parish in the East Midlands, I transcribed all entries in the 1939 Register. I then individually cross-referenced the birth date of each entry with a secondary source (either civil registration or parish record). This enabled me to assess how frequently the birth date given on the 1939 Register matched with the secondary source. It is essential to note that in this analysis, I was only able to assess whether birth dates from the two sources matched. In cases that mismatch I cannot say which birth date is the correct one.

For this parish I was able to compare the birth dates of 211 individuals. There were 4 entries for whom I was not able to perform a comparison. Any entry of a person born less than 100 years ago (after 1916) was excluded from the analysis.

Of the 211 entries, 38 mismatched on birth day, month, or year, or a combination thereof:

  • 22 mismatched on birth day
  • 6 mismatched on birth month
  • 17 mismatched on birth year

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To break down the data further, I determined that:

  • Of entries that mismatched on birth day, 36% were off by only 1 day
  • The most likely birth day to mismatch was the the 13th of the month
  • The month was never off by more than 1 month away from the expected month
  • Of entries that mismatched on year, 82% were only off by 1 year
  • Nearly 50% of those with a mismatching birth year were born in the 1880s (age 50-60)
  • Men and women were equally likely to have a mismatching birth date

So what does this mean?

We have to treat birth dates on the 1939 Register with caution. According to this analysis, nearly 1 in 5 entries has a birth date that does not match the secondary source. Interestingly the birth month was usually accurate, but it was not uncommon for the day or year to be off by 1. It is worth keeping in mind that this is a non-random sample of individuals from a single parish; whether these statistics would be the same elsewhere in the country is impossible for me to say.

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  • That's an informative analysis, and a nice illustration of record fallibility, thanks Harry. As it happens, I recently found my maternal grandmother in the 1939 register, with the correct day and month, but a birth year 4 years later than on her birth cert. It had subsequently been crossed out, and the "correct" date written in, possibly when the NHS got the register and added information from doctors. I mentioned this to my mother, who said "Only four years? I think she usually took off five or six!".
    – AndyW
    Jan 23, 2017 at 9:59
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I have found 2 entries that are incorrect (both in Liverpool!! Not sure if that is relevant) One was 2 days different from the actual date of birth (My father in law, so I know for certain the entry is incorrect as I knew him very well and also have his birth certificate) The second one, my great grandmother, was more perplexing as it's completely incorrect - year, date and month. I was able able to locate her details on the WW1 Pension Ledgers, which described her as the wife of my great grandfather, and their daughter my grandmother. The address given I could also match to my family (it was the same address my grandmother was born and also my father) I was then lucky enough to locate her baptism which included date of birth which also matches the WW1 records. I further located her death registration which gave the same date and month but different year. Since it was not uncommon for women to knock a year or two off their age I wasn't perturbed by this, because the information is given by a relative usually, without documentary evidence. So I had 3 sets of records that virtually matched - two exactly. That said I still haven't located her birth registration! Annoying! Ha ha. I still have no idea how the 1939 register got it so wrong, but I still see others on various sites using that one as her date of birth! And think Noooo! For others having a similar problem with the entry on the register I would say look to other sources and if you can find out who the other members of the family are. I was fortunate to have an Aunt who gave me a list of names and the married name of females. This made it easier to locate the family in the register. Hope this helps.

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People weren't so used to giving their date of birth back then as we are now so would often calculate based on their age. It seems that often they did not allow for the fact that they hadn't yet had a birthday that year. Also, they might not always be accurate in how old they thought they were. The information for all members of the household were probably given by one person which could also be the cause of some errors.

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I agree with this analysis. Although I haven't attempted such a detailed check, I certainly find that a significant proportion of mine are out by exactly one year. My gut feeling is that the proportion may be higher than the 20% shown above.

As an example, one person recorded as born 17 Sep '84 (i.e. 1884). Her birth was registered with GRO in qtr 4 of 1882. Her baptism is in the parish records as 27 May 1883. So I am satisfied her DoB was in 1883, not 84.

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    – Jan Murphy
    Jun 25, 2021 at 21:01

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