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Before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 the votes at parliamentary elections were publicly declared. No ballot paper was involved but at the hustings a record was made of the name and address of the voter and of the candidate(s) for whom he voted. The resulting "poll books" were often printed afterwards and many manuscript and printed poll books survive, the majority between 1694 and 1872. They form useful county and borough directories of those who held a small amount of freehold land.
A copy of the poll
In the latter part of the 17th century it seems to have been the practice in contested elections to list the names of the voters under the names of the candidates for whom they voted. One or two lists of this type, like that for the Essex by-election in 1694, were immediately afterwards published by the local printer.
Many parliamentary elections and by-elections in that century had been followed by acrimonious disputes about the conduct of the ballot and in the 1690s a series of reforms attempted to deal with the many problems involved. An Act of 1696 required the sheriff at county elections to "set down the names of each freeholder and the place of his freehold and for whom he shall poll". No such requirement was made for borough elections but the returning officers in all constituencies were to "deliver to such person or persons as shall desire the same a copy of the poll". For this there could be "a reasonable charge for writing the same".
It does not seem to have been envisaged that the resulting lists would be preserved indefinitely, but as they proved useful in cases of dispute, a further Act in 1711 required that the lists taken at future county polls be passed within twenty days to the Clerk of the Peace "to be carefully kept and preserved". This Act also required that the addresses of voters be recorded as well as the place of the freehold that qualified them to vote.
It is curious that the same provision was not made for the preservation of the lists taken at borough polls and it was not until 1843 that an Act ordered the deposit in the Crown Office of all future polls, both county and borough, taken at parliamentary elections. Here they were kept and preserved and opened to public inspection. At the end of the 19th century the resulting collection, dating from 1843 to 1870, was offered to the British Museum and then to the Public Record Office. Both repositories declined to take them. In 1896 a Committee of Inspecting Officers recommended that specimens be preserved. The Public Record Office failed to collect them and in 1907 the whole collection was destroyed.
Meanwhile, in 1832 the production of a printed electoral register, showing the names and addresses of those qualified to vote (as opposed to those actually voting), had been made compulsory [see the article on Electoral Rolls and Registers in England], and in 1872, following illegal practices at the 1868 general election, the Secret Ballot Act put an end to the recording and publishing of individual votes. The university seats were exempted from that Act and lists of their voters were printed at Oxford in 1878, London in 1880 and Cambridge in 1882.
The right to vote in Counties
Before 1832 the basic qualification for the vote in county elections was ownership of freehold land worth 40 shillings (£2) a year by men aged 21 and over. Until 1774 the man had to reside in the county in which he voted; no woman was eligible. Forty shillings had been fixed by an Act of 1429 to cut out "a great, outrageous, and excessive number of people, of which the most part was people of small substance and no value ... [who] pretended a voice equivalent to ... the most worthy knights and esquires ... whereby manslaughter, riots, batteries and divisions among the gentlemen and other people of the counties shall very likely rise and be".
It was said that an income of forty shillings a year made a man independent, being sufficient to furnish him with all the necessaries of life. By 1832 forty shillings would just about support a labouring man for a month, but the number of people who had such an estate in England and Wales was then only about 247,000.
From 1763 the holders of annuities or rent charges on freehold land were also entitled to vote. In 1832 the right to vote in county elections was extended to include some 123,000 copyholders and leaseholders for periods of years on property worth £10 a year (reduced to £5 a year in 1867). The franchise was further extended in 1867 to tenants at will paying a rent of £50 a year.
The right to vote in Boroughs
Before 1832 the qualification for the vote in borough elections varied greatly from place to place, much depending on local custom. In Aylesbury, Cricklade, East Retford and Shoreham, for example, voting was restricted to those with a forty-shilling freehold, and this was the normal qualification in the large county boroughs. In Bristol freemen as well as freeholders could vote and there was a large electorate. In Lichfield the holders of only about 200 undivided tenements (burgage tenants) had the right. In Old Sarum there were only seven such holdings and no actual buildings had existed on them for many years.
In some boroughs the payment of "scot and lot" (effectively the poor rate) was sufficient qualification, in others (called potwalloper or potwaller boroughs) anyone who occupied a separate tenement in which to boil his own pot could vote, and there was (as at Honiton in 1763) a very wide franchise. In many boroughs the right to vote was restricted to freemen, but in some the freemen had to be resident in the borough and in others they had to pay scot and lot. In some boroughs only those freemen who were free by birth or apprenticeship could vote. In Bristol the right was also obtained by marrying the daughter of a freeman. In the City of London only the liverymen (senior freemen) voted. In Wilton only the mayor and burgesses were allowed to vote but in Preston all the male inhabitants had that right.
The 1832 Act preserved many of these borough rights but extended the vote to inhabitant householders and occupiers at the annual value of £10. It took away the representation of 56 boroughs in England, mostly in the south, but created 42 more, many in the Midlands and north of England. Before 1832 some 188,391 men had the right to vote in the boroughs in England and Wales, a figure which went up to 285,958 after the 1832 reforms and to 1,195,360 after those in 1867 which extended voting rights to lodgers paying at least £10 a year.
Printed Poll Books
In view of the destruction of the centralised collection in 1907 it is fortunate that the Act of 1696 had encouraged the making of copies of the manuscript books and, following the next general election in 1702, several county polls were printed. This was usually done by a local printer, sometimes in a local newspaper. Publication of the lists soon became widespread. About 2,000 books were printed altogether, listing the voters in about one-third of all contested elections between 1702 and 1872. They are more frequent in the 19th century and they exist for about half the elections between 1830 and 1872. The earliest is that for Essex mentioned previously and the last (except for the universities) is for the by-election in Bedfordshire in June 1872.
In some cases rival printers issued copies of the same list; that for Beverley in 1847 was published by three different printers. Other lists, originally published in newspapers, were then issued as separate pamphlets. In the 1724 City of London poll a list of voters for one candidate was printed in one newspaper and a list of voters for the second candidate in a rival newspaper. Most were produced hurriedly and phonetic spellings of surnames are a common feature. Some books were published by the candidates themselves from the lists that their clerks kept and these may not always agree with the official record.
Prior to about 1740 the surviving printed polls mostly relate to county elections, more being printed for elections than for by-elections. Later the number of borough poll books increases considerably, particularly those for medium sized boroughs with a comparatively wide franchise. Between 1741 and 1872 there are more than twenty each for the towns of Cambridge, Colchester, Coventry, Hull, Ipswich, Lincoln, Maidstone, Norwich, Rochester and Shrewsbury.
Although there seems always to have been a ready market for the lists, the cost of printing those for large electorates became prohibitive. No Middlesex poll was published after 1802 and although polls were regularly printed for Bolton and Oldham, only two appeared for the larger electorate in Manchester (in 1832 and 1839). Probably for similar reasons, no county poll was ever published in Devon, Cornwall, Somerset or the North Riding of Yorkshire, though several for their boroughs have survived. Some that are known to have been printed are not found in any public library or record office: these include Cambridgeshire for 1830, the Isle of Wight for 1852 and 1859 and Rutland for 1754.
Manuscript Poll Books
In cases where no printed version of the poll exists then the original manuscript list may survive amongst the sessions records. In the County of Hertford, for example, manuscript lists survive for the years 1714, 1722, 1727, 1736, 1761 and 1802 in addition to the printed lists for 1734, 1754, 1774, 1784, 1790, 1796, 1805 and 1832, and there is a manuscript list for the borough of St Albans in 1818 that has not been printed. Maidstone in Kent has a remarkable series of printed polls and a gap between 1790 and 1802 is nicely filled by a manuscript poll for 1796. Similarly a gap in those for Bristol between 1812 and 1830 is filled by a manuscript list in 1820.
Although most manuscript lists are for the period after 1696, a number of important lists for earlier years have survived. Shropshire has one for 1676 and Essex for 1679. Others are listed in the guide by Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers mentioned below.
Poll Book Arrangement
The internal arrangement of many poll books is often confusing and they should be searched with care. In the early books the names of the voters were listed under the names of the candidates for whom they voted. Later, many books show the names by parish, the parishes themselves being arranged by Hundred. There may, however, be an index of parishes at the beginning, or an index of voters' names at the end. The catalogue of the collection at the Society of Genealogists has carefully indicated the many different arrangements found.
A very frequent arrangement will show under the parish in which the freehold is situated, (1) the name of the voter, (2) his place of abode if not in that place, (3) the nature or "quality" of the freehold and (4) the name or names of its occupier or occupiers. The final columns give the initials of the candidates for whom votes were made; their full names (but not their parties) appearing on the title page.
The nature of the freehold is usually abbreviated, with An(n) for Annuity, F for Farm, G or Ga for Garden, Gl for Glebe, H for House (Hs for Houses, HG for House and Garden), L for Land, M for Messuage or Malting (or sometimes for Mill), O for Orchard, R for Rectory, T for Tithe (T and G is Tithe and Glebe), V for Vicarage, W for Woods, etc. Combinations of these letters, which are rarely explained and not always consistently applied, often appear.
In borough polls the occupation of the voter if often given and after 1832 there are frequently separate lists of non-resident voters and of those who did not vote although qualified to do so (the "non-voters") such as those of Hull in 1847 who were at sea. The 1741 Poll for Newcastle-upon-Tyne divides the voters according to their trades and does not show their addresses, perhaps allowing other traders to use and place their sons as apprentices with people of the same political persuasion.
Poll Books and their Uses
Poll books can be used like the trade directories of the 19th century to localise individuals and to trace their life spans, as well as to discover their political affiliations.
Many poll books reveal a voter's connection between two places, showing both his address and the place in which he owned his freehold. This may be an important indication of migration. Entries of non-resident voters in 41 poll books in the period 1702-1807 were indexed in a typescript Index to voters residing in a county other than that in which their freehold was situated now at the Society of Genealogists [not in FHL]. Similarly, the listing of non-resident freemen in the polls of freemen boroughs may well indicate the place of training and/or origin of those who have moved away from the town. Poll books for the City of London are usually arranged by City Company and provide a most important link between a man and his Company when, as is so often the case, the trade he follows bears no relationship to that of the Company to which he belongs.
Those books that show the occupiers of the freeholds similarly provide an important link between the names of landlords and their tenants not easily found in other sources. These may lead to mention of the tenants in the wills and/or account books of the landlords. The place of abode of the landlord may occasionally also indicate or give clues to the tenant's place of origin.
Printed poll books were often used by canvassers at the next election and a number survive (like that for Buckinghamshire in 1784 at the Society of Genealogists; FHL fiche 6202640) that have been marked up with changes of address and freehold, as well as notes of death, and these are particularly interesting.
Collections of Poll Books
Most manuscript poll books are found in county or local authority record offices with the printed books either there or in a local studies library. There are large collections in the British Library, Guildhall Library, Bodleian Library and at the Institute of Historical Research at London University. The collection at Guildhall Library was destroyed by enemy action in 1940 but another has since been assembled and a catalogue printed (1970) that indicates those that include addresses and/or occupations.
An avid collector of printed poll books, Harry Anderson Pitman, who was one of the founders of the Society of Genealogists, gave a large collection to the Society in 1939, bequeathing further volumes at his death in 1942. Anthony Camp published a list of those held in 1961 and the librarian, John Sims, produced a full catalogue in 1964 (last revised in 1995). When John Sims moved to the Institute of Historical Research he organised an exchange of photocopies that added much to both collections. Later still he compiled the definitive Handlist of British Parliamentary Poll Books (University of Leicester, 1984) [FHL 942 N4h] listing known printed poll books and describing their physical arrangement. The book by Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers, Poll Books 1696-1872: a directory of holdings in Great Britain (The Family History Partnership, 4th edition, 2008) [not in FHL] shows by year both manuscript and printed polls. Neither lists poll books for Ireland.
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
- John Sims, Handlist of British Parliamentary Poll Books (University of Leicester, Occasional Publication No. 4, and University of California, Riverside, 1984).
- Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers, Poll Books 1696-1872: a directory of holdings in Great Britain (The Family History Partnership, 4th edition, 2008).
- N.J.N. Newington-Irving, ed., Directories and Poll Books, including Almanacs and Electoral Rolls, in the Library of the Society of Genealogists (Society of Genealogists, 1995) [FHL 942.1/L1 D23so].
- A Handlist of Poll Books and Registers of Electors in Guildhall Library (Guildhall Library, 1970) [not in FHL].
[Adapted from Anthony Camp's article 'The history and value of genealogical records: Poll Books' in Practical Family History, Number 61 (January 2003), pages 8-10].