National Registration Act 1915
The first National Registration was taken during the First World War. The context was a fierce debate raging in the War Cabinet between those ministers willing to consider conscription and those who wanted to continue the policy of voluntarism. The argument turned on knowing the number of men within the population available to fight, and existing statistics were judged to be insufficiently accurate. Remarkably, given that this was essentially a census-type question, the Cabinet decided to resolve the matter through the introduction of national registration.
Under the National Registration Bill, introduced by the President of the Local Government Board, Walter Long, in July 1915, personal information on all the adult population was compiled in locally-held registers, and identity cards were issued. The act required that all men and women, between the ages of 15 and 65 years of age, to register at their residential location on 15 August 1915. Unlike a census, the head of household was not responsible for completing the form and instead each person who came under the act would complete their own form. Some 29 million forms were issued across England, Scotland and Wales.
The figure that interested the War Cabinet was soon generated: 1,413,900 men in England and Wales were still available for national service. Once this figure was found, politicians’ interest in National Registration, and therefore also the identity card, dramatically waned. Cards were lost, left in pockets and the backs of chests of drawers. By July 1919, the Manchester Guardian remarked: Apparently, National Registration had survived merely in order to be forgotten, and the news that the Government no longer desires that it should be kept up to date sounds rather like reading the funeral service over a mummy. [Yet] the National Register was a big enough Pharaoh in its day…its taking went far to overshadow more combatant aspects of the war, and August 15th, 1915, was as big a day for contemporary vision as September 25th and the opening of the luckless Loos offensive.