War and National Registration

War and National Registration

During the First World War, the activities of the General Register Office for Scotland expanded as it was drawn into the war effort, particularly after the National Registration Act was passed on 15 July 1915.  This Act required a Register of every adult in the country between the ages of 15 and 65, but was vague about how it would be set up and maintained.  Bernard Mallet, the Registrar General for England, devised a complicated system for a Register in each local authority.  On Registration Day, 15 August 1915, everyone within the specified age group was to complete a form giving their name, age, nationality, marital status and employment details.  In England, the forms were organised locally, and filed first by occupational group, and then alphabetically by name within each occupation.  But in Scotland, where the Registrar General set up his own system, all forms were held centrally in Edinburgh, and were organised alphabetically, rather than by occupation.  This led to tensions between the General Register Office in London and its Scottish counterpart.

Mallet's system shows more clearly why the Register was set up, and the motivation behind it became increasingly obvious during the autumn of 1915.  The National Registration Bill was pushed through Parliament as a way of dealing with the labour crisis, because essential industries were left without key workers after the rush of volunteers to the Front.  The government was also keen to identify so-called 'shirkers' and 'slackers' who were not doing their duty for the war effort.  The Register was further intended to assist in efficient deployment of labour as the government imposed more controls on the workforce, and the forms listed any alternative trades for each individual, whether current or not.  When the Register was set up, some feared, justifiably, that it would be used for military conscription.  The information on the Register about all males aged between 19 and 41 was copied onto pink forms, with men in essential industries being 'starred' for exemption from military service.  The pink forms were then handed to the military authorities for recruitment purposes.  Recruiting officers would pay up to three visits to men who had not enlisted, and inquire about the reasons why they had not joined up, a tactic that pressured men to enlist.  Inevitably, the Register was also used when conscription was introduced in 1916.

The Scottish Register

The Scots created their own card index and organized their Register alphabetically before the plans for the pink forms became clear.  Fulfilling Mallet's instructions for the pink forms led to a good deal of extra work for the GROS staff, who often worked 13-hour days in the early stages of setting up the Register.  Senior GROS staff also had reservations about their role in classifying occupations.  James Craufurd Dunlop, the Superintendent of Statistics, explained that this duty went well beyond the legal remit of his office, since classifying occupations effectively determined who was sent to the Front and who was exempt.  Staff in the General Register Office therefore made decisions that might be, literally, a matter of life or death, yet years of experience in compiling the census had taught them how difficult it was to be precise in classifying occupations based on what people wrote about their work.

Some odd decisions were taken on the basis of the Register.  In February 1916, a firm of electrical engineers questioned why, when all their men had given the same job description on their forms, all the contractors had been 'starred,' but not the senior manager, who was crucial in organizing the work of the firm.  There was confusion about some of the job descriptions, because words that were obsolete in England were still used in Scotland, for example, 'hind' to refer to a skilled farm worker.  Dunlop also asked that the term 'lunatic' be replaced by 'insane' on the Register, as being 'more modern and up-to-date'.  Correspondence about jobs gives an interesting insight into perceptions of gender roles: in discussing the categorization of milkers, Dunlop stated that this was clearly a woman's job.  And there was the question of how accurate statistics produced from the National Register were: as Patten MacDougall, the Registrar General for Scotland pointed out,

'. . . human tendency is not to minimise the nature of the personal occupation'.

There may have been some national feeling behind the reluctance of the GROS to become too closely involved with recruitment.  Scots were already found in the armed services in disproportionate numbers, and Scotland produced a substantial amount of material necessary for war, in heavy industry and in agriculture.  The first rush of volunteers to enlist had put much pressure on these vital sections of the economy.  A rather jaundiced note in the GROS in 1915 stated that Scotland had already been 'thoroughly skinned' by the recruiting officers.

Extra Work for Registrars

The National Register was also used to keep track of rationing.  The Ministry of Food had its own index for keeping track of people, but relied on the local registrars to make sure that parents of newborn children applied for a ration card for their son or daughter, and the registrars also collected the ration cards of people who had died, to prevent others using them.  A few registrars took this duty so seriously that they refused to register a death until the ration card was produced, but they were corrected in this matter.

Nonetheless, by 1918, the Scots were proud of the efficiency and accuracy of their Register, although they did not support Mallet's proposals to continue it in peacetime.  Opposition to continuing the Register was driven by cost - the GROS was overstretched by the demands of National Registration - and liberal opposition to extending the boundaries of the state (there are similar arguments today about the introduction of identity cards).  Senior staff at the GROS believed that the purpose of their office was to collect and report on vital statistics, and so it should remain.  By the end of the war registrars were exhausted by their additional duties, and were complaining of all the extra work they had to do without an increase in their fees.  The GROS was also at full stretch, since several of its staff volunteered for active service, and it was during this period that the English and Scottish Registrars General reluctantly accepted that women could work both in the General Register Offices, and as local registrars.

The registrars took on the same tasks in the Second World War.  This time, conscription, rationing and identity cards were introduced at the beginning of the war, and the sense of national emergency was overwhelming, so that there was less argument about the purpose of the National Register; but it too was dropped when rationing ended.

During both wars, the registrars had to carry out their usual task of keeping track of the British population, though this was often difficult, given the greater mobility of the people in times of war.  The registrars recorded the vital events of refugees, and the GROS transmitted information about the deaths of German and Italian prisoners of war to their home countries.  The registrars were not responsible for keeping track of military casualties, since this was the duty of the War Office, but they worked with the legal authorities to identify bodies of all nations, victims of the naval war, who were washed ashore on the Scottish coast.  This was not always possible, and the legacy can be seen in coastal kirkyards like that on the small island of Colonsay, with its graves of sailors, 'known only to God.'