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Electoral Registers and the Poll Books in England & Wales

Electoral registers came in to general use in 1832 and show the names of people entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. They only show those who were actually entitled to vote, not who actually used their vote or who they voted for. Registers for national elections have been compiled, and still are, every year since 1832, except the 20c War years.

Extant Electoral registers, or copies, are held at County Archives, Town Halls and Libraries. The British Library has the national collection of electoral registers from 1832 to the present day. The collection is complete from 1947 onwards, but patchy before World War II.

1600s Until the late 19c, the qualification for voting was generally linked to land ownership and therefore this was a right enjoyed by a minority of men. From the 15c the qualification in the counties was ownership, by adult men only, of freehold land with an annual value of at least 40 shillings. In most cities and boroughs the right to vote often depended on local custom.

1700s The original Poll Books

Poll Books list who voted at elections and who they voted for. The earliest ones are from around 1700 and they continued until 1872 when the secret ballot was introduced. While all poll books record the name of the voter, some also record other information such as occupation and or address.

The order of names also vary, sometimes by address, sometimes by name, sometimes by the order in which their vote was cast, and of course since they are a record of votes cast, some do not include the name of those, while eligible to vote, did not in fact cast their vote. Others do list separately those who did not vote.

The name and residence of each voter is given, then their Qualification, and who they voted for, one column for each candidate.

Since secret balloting was introduced in 1872 then the last possible date for surviving Poll Books is for the parliamentary election of 1868. Extant Poll Books are rare pre 1711 but they do survive after that and are usually to be found in the County Archives, County Libraries or the SOG.

Many poll books are now also available on line for free, and hold many more.

Evolution of the Registers

To make the most of electoral registers when researching your family history, it's very important to understand how the right to vote slowly increased from only a small proportion of the population in the early 19c to the right for everyone over the age of 21 to vote in 1928 (apart from prisoners and Members of the House of Lords).

1832 The "Representation of the People Act" of 1832 was a major change attempting to start the process of making the electoral system fairer, for example sweeping away the "rotten boroughs" where an MP was elected by only a handful of voters.

Part of this was to introduce Electoral Registers and make the rule that only people on register were eligible to vote in parliamentary and local elections. It also introduced standard rules to what made someone eligible to vote although it varied depending on whether you were a Borough voter or a County voter. In the case of Borough voters, men were eligible to vote if they were owners of property worth £10 a year. In the case of County voters, men were eligible if they either owned freehold property worth 40 shillings a year, were £10 copyholders (holding land from a manor), £10 leaseholders (as long as the lease was for 60 years or more) or were £50 tenants.

The act was specific that the vote was restricted to men by adding the word "male" in front of "person". There was an attempt in 1868 to argue that since in other laws such as taxation laws, it had been ruled that the term "man" must be held to include women, women were equally allowed to vote but this attempt failed, meaning a specific act of parliament would be required to give women the vote.

The 1832 act more than doubled the number of voters to just under 1 million men.

1857 In 1857 it was estimated that 1.2 million out of an overall population of 28 million were entitled to vote. An archived book, "The Law of the Hustings and Poll Booths" from 1857, explains in detail the eligibility to vote (and much more).

1867 The 1867 "Representation of the People Act" extended the right to vote for borough voters to include all men who were owners or tenants of any dwelling house or were lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms, as long as they had been within the borough during the whole of the preceding twelve months. This extended the vote to about 1.5 million men.

1869 Unmarried women were given the right to vote in local government elections so although they did not have the right to vote in Government Elections, for the first time their names appeared on electoral registers. Initially these were women ratepayers who until the reform of the married women's property law in 1882 were very rare. Some men also had the right to vote in local but not national elections.

1872 Secret balloting was introduced, and poll books were no longer produced.

1878 Registers for parliamentary elections and for municipal elections could now be merged, later this was compulsory. The registers for municipal elections (sometimes called Burgess Rolls) were essentially lists of ratepayers.

1884 The 1884 "Representation of the People Act" effectively abolished the distinction between County and Borough and every male householder (over the age of 21) had the right to vote as well as occupiers of lands and tenements worth at least £10 and lodgers paying at least £10 a year. This added about 6 million men to the electoral registers. Those who occupied a dwelling house by virtue of any office, service or employment were also given the vote.

Note however that this right was restricted to one voter per householder so would exclude adult sons living at home or heads of shared households.

1918 The 1918 "Representation of the People Act" gave all men over 21 the right to vote and for the first time women were given the right to vote in Government Elections as long as they were over 30 and occupied as owners or tenants any land or premises in a constituency which with the exception of dwelling houses had to be of £5 yearly value. The franchise was also extended to wives who were over 30 of all husbands who were entitled to vote in local government elections and also to those who were university graduates.

There was much debate over the exact qualification required for women to vote but at the time, had it been extended to all women over 21, then the women voters would have outnumbered the men which was just a step too far - 10 years later this happened. Overall there were 8,479,156 women electors on the register for the December 1918 parliamentary elections (out of a total of 21,392,322), considerably more than the 6 million estimated when the act was being debated in parliament.

One exclusion brought in by the 1918 act was to disqualify from voting for five years anyone who was exempted from military service during the first world war as a conscientious objector (although there were grounds on which this disqualification could be removed).

1928 Women over 21 were now eligible to vote, giving the vote to all adults at the age of 21.

1946 The Business Premise qualification and the university qualification was abolished so now no person had more than one vote (although they could appear on more than one register).

1951 Those reaching the voting age within the lifetime of the register start to be recorded.

1971 The voting age was lowered to 18 and also the electoral register now consistently includes all those who were not 18 but would reach 18 during the period of the register so that they could then vote on elections held on or after their 18th birthday.

The Electoral Register Codes

Until 1948 when a simple one person, one vote finally arrived, the electoral registers usually contained a reason or reason codes against electors showing the basis on which they qualified for the vote.

1885 There is usually a description of what entitles the person to be on the electoral register. This may include extra information such as for lodgers the landlord's or landlady's name, the weekly rent and how many rooms were rented. Where someone had moved house during the last 12 months, the word "successive" often appears followed by their previous address to show that each was of a sufficient rateable value to qualify its occupier to vote.

1918 Against each person are two codes, the first giving the qualification for Parliamentary Elections, and the second for Local Elections. Where there is a dash the voter could not vote in that election.

R Residence qualification
BP Business premises qualification
O Occupational qualification
HO Qualification through husband's occupation
NM Naval or military voter

Note that "occupation" means occupation of a property, and nothing to do with employment.

1928 Against each person are two codes, the first giving the qualification for Parliamentary Elections, and the second for Local Elections. Where there is a dash the voter could not vote in that election.

R Residence qualification (man)
Rw Residence qualification (woman)
B Business premises qualification (man)
Bw Business premises qualification (woman)
O Occupational qualification (man)
Ow Occupational qualification (woman)
D Qualification through wife's occupation
Dw Qualification through husband's occupation
NM Naval or military voter

Against names, the following extra codes can sometimes be seen:

J Eligible to serve as juror
SJ Eligible to serve as special juror
a Absent voter

Added in 1945:

BP Business premises register
CI Civilian residence register
SE Service register
RR Ratepayers register

The Electoral Register Timeline

In general terms, one register was produced each year although none were produced during the war years 1915 (Scotland), 1916, 1917 and 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1944.

There were two registers a year in 1868 and in 1885, also between 1919 and 1926 (sometimes called the spring and autumn registers), and also two in 1945 and two in 1946. There were two key dates the "qualification date" which was the date when the voter had to qualify to be added to the register and the "effective date", the date when the register came into effect for any elections from that date on.

Between 1832 and 1915, qualification date was in July with an effective date of the beginning of December up to 1867 and then the 1st of January. From 1918 to 1926 when there were two registers a year, the spring registers had a qualification date of 15 January with an effective date of 15 April and for the autumn registers, the two dates were 15 July and 15 October. After 1928 until 1939 the dates were 1 June and 15 October.

By the 1950s, qualification date was in October with an effective date the following February.

One word of warning about the Ancestry London Electoral Registers - they have produced the indexes using optical character recognition rather than by human transcription. The quality of the originals is quite good, but nevertheless, the indexing is not perfect, for example their transcription of "Ethel Cordelia Thurlow" in 1933 is "Ethfil Conic Thurlow".

How useful is the E.R to genealogists - what information does it contain ?

Pre 1870, the qualification was by property (40s freeholder, £10 tenant etc) and these listings can be handy, if your ancestors were property owners, as they do include names and addresses for absentee voters with property 'back home', and this can be the clue or the proof of a link.

Post 1870, they are not enormously useful, since it states only the names and address of voters over 21 - and pre 1919, this is likely to be only the male householder, with maybe a son or so over 21 permanently resident in the house.

Women (householders and stable residents) over 30 got the vote in 1919 and women over 21 in 1929. A handful of female property owners appear on the local voting register (not Parliamentary) from 1870.

The local registers may be at local archives, the local council or borough town hall etc. They do not state ages, (except in later rolls, when someone is going to be 21 in the currency of the register) birthplaces, or occupations. In wartime, service voters are included and some have the regiment stated, which is very handy.

They are mostly filed by address rather than alphabetically (a few exceptions, but never anywhere you actually want). So you need to know pretty well where the person was before you can find them.

The pre 1892 electoral registers will enable you to find an address for use in consulting the censuses - but, as before, you need to know the area before hand.

Street and trade directories are rather more useful, if you have a clue as to area, since women are included and occupations for people with their own businesses are also there. (So if you know ggfr was a butcher with his own shop somewhere in Sheffield, you could find him right away in a Sheffield trade directory, while it might take ages working through electoral rolls)

They are public right up to date and must by law be available in local council offices, Post Offices, and are in some public libraries.

The FRC has a full set of current ones. The very latest ones are accessible via CD.

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All the information here should only be used as a guideline and must not be relied on as primary evidence.