With the possible exception of the 2014 Scottish Referendum, elections are today met with apathy by most people. But that was not the case in the 18th and early 19th century. Prior to the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1832, commonly known as the Reform Act, elections were rousing and boisterous affairs.
For those of us brought up in the 20th century, the right of every adult to have a free vote at Parliamentary and local elections is taken for granted; as is the ‘secret ballot’. Extraordinary as it may seem, prior to 1872 votes at a Parliamentary election were far from private and had to be publically declared. Poll books list those who voted at elections and who they voted for.
The earliest copies date from around 1700 and they continued until 1872 when the secret ballot was introduced.
For local and family historians, poll books can offer an insight into the way individuals voted, with the possible bonus of their occupations and addresses. Many will 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 – they also form useful county and borough directories of those who held freehold land.
The voting system
For our voting ancestors across the UK, there were two main types of constituency, county and borough – there were also university constituencies. Initially, two representatives from each county were elected to the Commons. They were joined later by two from each borough, although borough representation was not obligatory.
To stand for election to Parliament, the Qualifications Act of 1710 laid down that county members should possess landed property worth £600 per
Poll books date from about 1700 and continue until 1872 when the secret ballot was introduced