14 July 1915 – National Registration

Above: a registration form printed under the National Registration Act.

Britain has held many a census over the centuries, most famously when its Norman conqueror assembled the Domesday Book in 1086. Today in Parliament, a bill is introduced to hold a wartime census that will collect data on everyone between fifteen and sixty-five. With the bill passing tomorrow, August 15th is chosen for Registration Day, with every adult reporting their name, age, job, origins, and whether they are married. Organized locally in cadres arranged by name or occupation, their information will be filed alphabetically and used to further the ‘war effort.’

There will be four main uses for the National Registration Act. Possessed of the notion that ‘slackers’ and ‘shirkers’ are holding back the war effort, Lloyd George wants to identify unemployed men who can be drafted to essential work in critical factories. He also wants to regularize the labor pool and make more efficient use of the existing labor pool. Of course, military conscription is another potential use of National Registration, and while the Asquith government resists calls to draft men for service right now, in time the database collected under the law will be used for that purpose, too.

Finally, by 1917 the Ministry of Food will rely on local census registrars to supply families with ration cards for their newborn children — and collect the cards of the dead to prevent fraud. Given these additional duties without a commensurate increase in pay, the registrars are soon grumbling at their lot.

Joseph Morewood Staniforth

A cartoon by Joseph Morewood Staniforth depicts the stereotypical slacker/shirker comically discomforted on the home front

Of course, keeping up with so much information is not easy, but Registrar General Sir Bernard Mallet has already spent years upgrading the nation’s census infrastructure. By 1911, answers to new questions about fertility rates, occupations, and industry were being tabulated with the punch-cards and counting machines that Herman Hollerith had originally designed for the United States Census. Now, their full potential will be exploited to give the wartime government accurate and important data.

Women will do most of the work. Already flooding into the workforce at unprecedented rates, the women of Britain will punch the cards, tabulate the results, and free men in the General Registrar Offices to go to war instead. Like Hollerith, who temporarily employed thousands of American women to conduct the 1890 census, Mallet is unknowingly presaging the major technological trend of the 20th Century: as work becomes less about manual labor and more about information, gender equality starts to become a fact in society rather than a temporary wartime social condition.

Even before there is formal conscription, the database is used to promote recruitment. All males between nineteen and forty-one years of age are listed on pink forms, with those who work in vital defense plants given a star to exempt their names. Given the remaining forms, military authorities visit every fighting-age male who has not enlisted, appearing at their door three times to encourage them into the ranks and gather information about the reasons men do not enlist.

Yet the system is not fully centralized. Scotland has its own Registrar General, keeps their data in Edinburgh rather than London, and organizes it by alphabet first instead of occupation. Indeed, over the course of the conflict Bernard Mallet will expend much of his energy on the unresolved cross-purposes of the two General Registrar Offices, and Scottish opposition will play the largest role in preventing him from continuing the system after the war. Liberal opposition to the enlarged wartime boundaries of the state within the lives of British citizens causes a postwar reaction that sweeps away much of the mobilizing and regulating infrastructure, requiring the British government of 1939 to completely reinvent this wheel.


Herman Hollerith with one of his machines: an analog computer hints at major changes coming to the 20th Century workplace