Buried under millions of forms: National Registration, 1915

National Registration Act 1915

Title: National Registration Act 1915
Description: Wikipedia by-nc

Written by Marion Edwards

In August 1915, Britain inaugurated ‘Registration Day’, an extraordinary census recording information about every man and woman aged between 15 and 65 for a new National Register. Its purpose was to find out how many men of military age were still civilians, how many were available for war work and, more pressingly, how many could join the armed forces. During the first year of the Great War two million men had enlisted in Britain’s army and navy, to supplement those already serving as regulars, reservists or territorial force men. By February 1915, 15% of London’s male industrial workforce, and probably more of its service sector employees, were serving.  By early 1915, the numbers joining up each month had levelled out at around 110,000 and the authorities were concerned that not enough men were coming forward to build up an army (and replace its casualties) to win the war.  There was an urgent need to know how many eligible men were still available.  The National Registration Act 1915 was passed by Parliament on 15 July 1915, paving the way for the creation of the register a month later on 15 August.  While the register did not in itself make men liable to serve, the Government considered that ‘it will compel them to declare that they are doing nothing to help their country in her hour of crisis.’

Across Surrey local authorities sprang into action to collect the necessary information. Guildford Borough was divided into 29 districts and volunteers delivered forms on 9 August, collecting them over the 6 days following 16 August. There was a £5 fine for ‘non-compliance’ – in other words, for refusal to complete a form, or give accurate information.  National Registration Cards were then issued.  A hundred further volunteers then extracted information relating to men of military age to send to the West Surrey Recruiting Area.

Local newspapers covered the event, the Surrey Advertiser of 7 July stating that ‘Local authorities … are entrusted with the task of compiling the new National Register, and are to receive an allowance from the Treasury towards the cost’, publishing on 26 July ‘The Duties of the Local Authorities. Work of the Voluntary Enumerators. What the Public have to do’ and noting on 31 July that ‘Clergymen, Councillors and Traders’ were all acting as enumerators.  Apparently, there was no shortage of interested volunteers: the Surrey Mirror of 20 August observed that ‘Among the hundred thousand voluntary workers who began on Monday their great task collecting the forms for compiling a National Register’ were clergymen, actors and actresses, peers of the realm, VIPs, journalists … ‘ who all, according to the Surrey Advertiser of 18 October, ‘took their work from the beginning in such a way that left no doubt that very little trouble would be experienced in dealing with the completed forms’.

National Registration Card

The work of local councils after the collection of the forms was also reported on. The Surrey Mirror of 3 September noted that ‘classifying forms … is going apace in the borough [of Reigate].  The whole of the male portion of the community had been dealt with by Tuesday, and the cards sent out indicating that registration was complete’. However, by 13 November the Surrey Advertiser was publishing the complaint of a Council Clerk that ‘work under the National Registration Act was taking up the whole time of one of the officials’.

Nevertheless, the results of registration in Surrey appear to have yielded positive results, flagging up areas for action. According to the Surrey Mirror of 20 August, ‘one of the first things to be taken in hand will be a direct personal appeal to all men of military age who are not engaged in really necessary national work, to come forward and supply the nation’s need’, the same newspaper stating on 22 October that ‘Every man whose name remains un-starred on the pink forms under the National Registration Act is to be personally canvassed’.

Understandably, local reactions to Registration varied widely. The Surrey Advertiser of 14 August observed sanguinely that there was overall a ‘General Willingness to give all Necessary Information’.  However the Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser published on 10 July the opinion of ‘A Wayfarer in the Nation’ that ‘The Government must expect some plain speaking on the National Register Bill … Most Liberals (and some Conservatives) think it a piece of gratuitous folly …’.  In the 25 September issue it noted under the headline ‘Religious Scruples Cost £5’ that, on the grounds that war is contrary to the teaching of Christianity, Harold Pugmire, a schoolmaster, was fined the requisite amount for refusing to complete a form.  In October, both the Surrey Mirror and the Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser reported that one Reigate resident was summoned for failing to register under the Act, but did not appear before the justices.  Another hostile opinion appeared in the Surrey Advertiser of 23 October: ‘they bid us play at such games as National Registration and imagine that we are saving our country with the filling up of forms …’.

Individual reactions, both from the point of view of the recipients of the forms, and of those collecting them are also to be found in the archives.  In his diary held at the Imperial War Museum (Docs 11335), businessman Frederick Robinson of Woodthorpe, Leigh Hill Lane, Cobham questioned the point of the National Register as in his view it would ‘take months to classify the forms’ (30 June 1915), repeating his criticisms in July, as he wondered who would decide what work a man should do (‘clerks and possibly temporary clerks’), and what in any case the end result would be. He exclaimed ‘The writer of these notes offered his services many months ago to do work gratuitously, for which he was well qualified, but his effort met a curt refusal; if he were to repeat the offer in one of these forms the probabilities are that it could be buried under the millions of forms sent out’.  In August, when the Robinson family completed their National Registration forms, Robinson himself declared ‘Am skilled in the purchase of explosives, munitions of war, and stores, and have already offered my services to the Government on two occasions in writing’. His wife recorded her occupation as ‘household duties’ and his son declared he was an ‘Upper Division Clerk engaged on special war work at the Board of Trade’.

National Registration in Bermondsey (Daily-Mirror, 11 Sep 1915)

An article in ‘The Pilgrim’, the magazine of Reigate Grammar School, of April 1916 commented on the other side of the matter – the actual collection of the completed ‘blue and white’ forms, of which the anonymous author noted that for every ‘two or three hundred forms’, probably only ‘a dozen or two’ would have been completed correctly and went on to lament that ‘after the method of filling in the form had been minutely explained to an occupant of every house … The inability of some people to do as they had been requested was appalling … It was surprising how few people knew their own surnames’. The author found many of the replies humorous, especially one reply to ‘Question iii (regarding single bliss or otherwise)’ where a gentleman stated he was ‘“married and knew it” – underlined twice’.  He particularly enjoyed answers to Question iv (occupation), where spelling and accent amused him – for example, a ‘Casular’, a ‘Meshin Hand’, an ‘Offis boy’, an ‘Ise Vendor’, the person who had a ‘Grosery Beesness’ and the Cockney who was a ‘Lythe Hand’.  Other oddities noted in this category were a ‘Fried Fish Operator’, an ‘Emergency Ration’, a ‘Fish-monger’s Photographer’, a ‘Chief Stoker, other trade Milliner’, a ‘Hydraulic lift driver, matirial for wich use coal’, a ‘Cheesemonger working on Explosives’ and an ‘Exploded Worker’.  Of women’s responses, ‘the answer which appealed to us most, perhaps because of its neatness and brevity, was that·of the lady who was “Wife to my husband”.  We are uncertain whether this was the person who erased “Form for Female” at the head of the form and inserted in its place, “Form for Lady”’.  Finally, the author noted ruefully that ‘Nearly all these details had to be recopied on to Pink Forms, Green Forms, Buff Forms, and Certificates.  And when it is stated that there were at least 40,000 male Forms … the magnitude of the task may be imagined’, even if ‘compensation for working till 10 o’clock at night and all day Sunday’ was found in the comedy provided.

Other sources

William H Oakley, Guildford in the Great War: the Record of a Surrey Town (Guildford, 1934)

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