Poll Books, Burgess Lists, Electoral Rolls and Family History

Chad Hanna - 20th January 2016 - speaking at Computer Branch (Woodley)

What's covered

  • What are electoral registers and poll books?
    • And what do they look like?
  • Where can you find electoral registers and poll books?
  • How can you search electoral registers and poll books
  • Who are you likely to find in electoral registers and poll books?
    • How does this change between 1832 and today?

What's not covered

  • Anything to do with setting up and running an election, including polling stations, counting, postal and proxy votes (and postal proxy votes), staff, candidates and their agents.
  • Countries other than England and Wales, except in passing.
  • Registers for the Corporation of London.
  • Suffragette movement.

Poll Book = Who voted for whom

Available for contested elections from 1696 to 1872 when the Secret Ballot Act did away with them.

Voters are typically in alphabetical order within each polling district (a sub-division of the constituency with a polling station).

For each voter, the example for Ashborne in Derbyshire shows:

  • Electors' names and place of residence
  • Qualification (e.g. Freehold, Occupation meaning Occupier), where situated, and in whose occupation.
  • Which of the named candidates they voted for at the election – they could normally vote for two representatives for the borough or two 'knights of the shire' for the county.

Polling Districts

Nowadays polling districts are chosen depending on:

  • the number expected to vote in person, typically in the low thousands.
  • the location of accessible polling stations
  • within boundaries of ward for council elections and parish for parish elections, if any.

Similar considerations are likely in the past (excluding accessibility)?

Poll Books

  • Qualification is why the person could vote
    • For example, Freeholder or Occupier
  • Many elections were not contested:
    • As candidates had to pay for the election and to 'incentivize' voters (by bribery or other corruption)
    • So no poll book

Electoral Register/Roll = Who can vote

From 1832 to present day.

In the 1927 Norfolk example (from findmypast) we see the Failes family, William Christopher and his wife Bessie and two of the four sons, Fred and Lionel listed at Castle Farm. The details are:

  • Elector Number – a sequential number with the Polling District of Castle Rising
  • Qualification for voting in Parliamentary elections, if any
  • Qualification for voting in Local Government elections, if any
  • Name in full, with Surname first
  • Residence or Property occupied and abode of non-resident occupier.

For Qualification codes, see http://www.electoralregisters.org.uk/codes.htm but at this date:

O = Occupation i.e. occupier

HO = Husband's occupation

R = Resident

There is a qualification date to be on the Electoral Roll, so it will be out-of-date by a few months, so the elector may have married, moved away or died by the publication of the register, let alone the end of it's validity.

The properties may be listed in Street Order within the Polling District with names listed alphabetically within the property.

Burgess Roll or List

This is a list of the electorate within a borough, rather than for the county.

Before 1832 Borough voters could be one or more of:

Burgage – owners of particular plots of land

Corporation – mayor and members of the town corporation

Freeman – those who had been granted the freedom of the borough (by inheritance, marriage, nomination or purchase)

Potwalloper – male householders who had a fireplace for a pot

Scot and Lot – male householders who paid local rates and did not receive poor relief

Depending on the borough system at the time (see Victoria County History)


Searching for your relative

Electoral Rolls, Burgess Lists and Pollbooks can be found on Findmypast, Ancestry, the Genealogist and elsewhere (looking for Voting Registers for your county on www.genuki.org.uk)

findmypast places the Electoral Registers in the sub-category Electoral Rolls under Census, land & surveys and there are two sets:

  • from their introduction in 1832 to 1932 – from the British Library as OCRed images
  • from 2002 to 2014 in digital form – useful to help find living people.
    • 2002 will be a full register, later registers will not include those who took advantage of 'opting out'. All have been produced from digital information.

Findmypast places many Poll books under the Directory & Almanacs sub-category under Directories & Social History. There are a limited number of years from 1830 to 1837 but they may be more elsewhere.

On Ancestry, if you search for Electoral in the Card Catalogue it currently shows eight sets of Electoral Registers (provided by the Guildhall Library and elsewhere) covering the period from 1832 to the mid-20th Century.

Current Electoral Registers

I suggest you ask Electoral Services in the Local Authority, but they may be available in larger libraries:

  • Search www. <Authority>.gov.uk for 'democracy' or 'electoral services'

Recently they have been published on first working day in December (though they reverted to February for 2014 as part of the introduction of Individual Elector Registration)

For example, at www.Reading.gov.uk you will find you can view the 'Full' register in the Reading Civic Offices for 10 minutes – or make an appointment.

By law bulk copying of the Full register is not allowed and you can only make handwritten notes. The 'Open' register is available for purchase e.g. for Address checking and excludes those who have 'opted out'. Credit agencies and political parties will get the full register, so opting-out shouldn't affect your credit rating.

The register only includes only British, Commonwealth and European voters that will be 18 or over by the end of the register's validity. Prisoners aren't allowed to vote, though those on remand can vote. Members of the House of Lords can't vote in Parliamentary elections.

Finding Electoral Registers in County Record Offices and Libraries

See Electoral Registers 1832-1948; and Burgess Rolls – by Jeremy Gibson published by The Family History Partnership (2008). There is a similar book covering Poll Books 1696-1872 – A Directory to Holdings in Great Britain by Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers.

www.electoralregisters.org.uk is a useful web site, especially for qualification codes.

www.genuki.org.uk – see Voting Registers heading for each county

County Record Office web sites via their own site or via discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Berkshire Family History Society have published Poll books on CD for the County elections in the years 1727 (also published by Eureka as a booklet), 1796, 1812 and 1818, and the Electoral Roll for 1832 – they are also available for free download in the members' area.

Who are you likely to find?

Before 1832 only a few (400,000? in England and Wales) could vote.

After the 1832 Reform Act the franchise was widened and this continued to the present day

You're more likely to find your ancestor if they were from the upper ranks and had some wealth.

It helps to understand how the electorate was broadened by the various Representation of the People Acts, the more significant of these being referred to as 'Reform' acts. There are useful descriptions of these on Wikipedia.

Could your ancestor vote?

YearAdult male percentMale voting ageAdult female percentFemale voting ageParliamentary ActNotes
1832 14 21 0 - Reform Act 1832 standardised form of franchise for all boroughs introduced for the first time
1867 32 21 0 - Reform Act 1867 householders now franchised- working classes gained the vote
1885 56 21 0 - Third Reform Act and Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 act extended the 1867 concessions from boroughs to the countryside
1918 100 21 40 30 Representation of the People Act 1918 abolished most property qualifications for men; enfranchised some women
1928 >100 21 100 21 Equal Franchise Act 1928 removed anomalies regarding graduates and business premises
1949 100 21 100 21 Representation of the People Act 1949 removed double vote entitlements regarding business premises
1969 100 18 100 18 Representation of the People Act 1969 extended suffrage to include 18- to 20-year-olds

From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_the_United_Kingdom

Further Reading

Berkshire Family Historian Vol 36 December 2012 p20

The Extension of the Franchise, 1832-1931 by Bob Whitfield published by Heineman (2001)

Additional information