Poll Books

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - FOCUS ON -

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

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