Why genealogists love general elections

This post is by Stuart Raymond, Pharos Tutor and prolific genealogy author

As another general election approaches, it is time for genealogists to think about what is in it for them. Answer: a great deal of evidence! The records of elections include many lists of names, beloved of genealogists. Parliamentary elections in the counties were conducted by sheriffs in their county courts. Between 1696 and 1872, they had to compile lists of those who had voted, showing how they had cast their votes. Many of these poll-books survive, some in manuscript, some printed. From 1832, registers of those entitled to vote had to be compiled and published annually, a practice that continues to this day (although information may be withheld from the modern published registers due to privacy concerns). These lists of names are invaluable sources for tracing the homes of family names across wide areas.

Poll-books and electoral registers are valuable sources of information for family and local historians. In those constituencies where the franchise was wide they may list thousands of our ancestors, telling us where they lived, and perhaps their occupation or status. The Westminster poll-book of 1774, for example, lists over 7,000 voters, with their residences and occupations.

The arrangement of poll-books was not uniform. Some grouped voters by parish, ward, or even street; others provided a straightforward alphabetical listing; a few listed them by trade. I have even seen a poll-book arranged in the order in which the electors cast their votes! Electoral registers are more uniform; the Somerset Western Division volume for 1832 is arranged alphabetically by hundred and parish.

In county constituencies before 1832, the franchise was held by freeholders who held land valued at forty shillings per annum. That qualification dated from 1429. In the succeeding half a millennia, the value of forty shillings declined considerably, and the numbers of those eligible to vote consequently greatly increased.

In the boroughs, there was no uniform franchise. It was frequently restricted to freemen, with the result that borough court records are often full of admittances to the freedom immediately before elections took place. In the City of London, the franchise was held by liverymen who were also freemen of the City. The 1768 London poll-book has a peculiar semi-alphabetic arrangement, whereby surnames are listed alphabetically by livery company. Elsewhere the franchise might be restricted to the burgesses – those who held land in the borough. At Old Sarum only those who held a ploughed field by burgage tenure could vote. There were very few voters!

The widening of the franchise came in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as successive Representation of the People acts gradually extended the right to vote to all adults other than prisoners and peers. An interesting account of the ‘History of the Parliamentary Franchise’ is available for download at www.parliament.uk/topics/Electoral-franchise.htm.  London electoral registers, 1832-1965 can be searched at http://search.ancestry.co.uk/search/db.aspx?dbid=1795. They are also available on a number of other sites. Of particular interest are the ‘absent voters lists’, which record the names of servicemen at the Front during the First World War. The information provided included regiment, number, and rank. For the Leeds absent voters list of 1918, visit www.leeds.gov.uk/leisure/Pages/Absent-war-voters.aspx

Poll-books and electoral registers can generally be found in local studies libraries and record offices for the areas they cover. There are also good collections at the Institute of Historical Research at London University, the Guildhall Library, and the British Library. Full lists of surviving poll-books and electoral registers are given in:

• Gibson, Jeremy, & Rogers, Colin. Poll books 1696-1872: a directory to holdings in Great Britain. 4th ed. Family History Partnership, 2008.
• Gibson, Jeremy. Electoral Registers and Burgess Rolls 1832-1948; . Family History Partnership, 2008.

A number of poll-books and electoral registers for Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, and Yorkshire have been reprinted, and are available from the Internet Genealogical Bookshop at www.genfair.co.uk.

 

Stuart says:  I work as a genealogical bookman. That is, I am not only an author publisher, but I am also a trained librarian and a genealogical bookseller in a small way. My ambition is to ensure that local and family historians receive the guidance they need to undertake effective research. Principally, I do that through my writing, but I also lecture, and run on-line courses through Pharos. Most of my books are now published through the Family History Partnership www.thefamilyhistorypartnership.com of which I am a member.

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One Response to Why genealogists love general elections

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I’m delighted you mention the absent voters lists. This source is something that I don’t see often come up as a source so it’s value is overlooked. It was through one of these that I found the regiment number of my gt grandfather, saving me a huge amount of time trawling through the army lists.

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