annum while borough members should have landed property worth £300 per annum.
Although the rules and regulations controlling who was eligible to vote for the county constituencies were uniform throughout the country, this was not the case for the boroughs where, prior to the 1832 Reform Act, there were no fixed qualifications for the franchise. Eligibility was dependant on local circumstances and tradition and until 1868, only men had the franchise. From 1869, women rate-payers were able to vote in local elections – but only if they were unmarried.
In Ireland, the Penal Laws had a major impact on the franchise: between 1727 and 1793 only Protestant men with 40-shilling freeholds had the right to vote; from 1793 until 1829 Roman Catholics also got the vote.
After 1829, all 40-shilling freeholders lost the vote. Many records were destroyed in 1922, although the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI) has digitised its surviving ‘Freeholders’ Records, comprising pre-1840 registers and poll books.
In Scotland, details of freeholders – men who owned land or other heritable property and were entitled to vote before the 1832 Reform Act – are amongst the records of the Sheriff Courts and some survive from the 17th century.
An Act of Parliament in 1696 was the main impetus for the publication of poll books. This made the county sheriffs responsible for compiling a record of the poll in county elections and that the returning officers should make details of how the votes were cast available for anyone to inspect. Therefore, not only were the ballots not secret, but voters’ names were published together with how they voted. 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’.
An 1843 Act ordered the deposit in the Crown Office of all future polls, both county and borough, taken at Parliamentary elections. 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 and in 1907, the whole collection was destroyed.
The poll books were printed by
private entrepreneurs, often hastily produced, which resulted in mistakes being made particularly with the spelling of names.
There was little uniformity in the way information was presented, that depended on the whims of the sheriff and his officers who took the poll.
Printed poll books were often used by canvassers for subsequent elections, and a number survive that have been marked up with changes of address and freehold, as well as notes of death.
The demise of poll books came with the introduction of the Secret Ballot Act 1872. How a person voted was no longer available to the public so poll books were not needed. Electoral registers, which were first introduced in 1832, became the predominant record of voters.
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. Check out The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue ( discovery. nationalarchives.gov.uk) to see where they are held. Additionally, there are large collections in the British Library, Guildhall Library, Bodleian Library, Institute of Historical Research and at the Society of Genealogists.
The Public Record office of Northern Ireland ( proni.gov.uk) holds many Irish poll books, which it has digitised and made available online. Scottish poll books are more difficult to track down. Try the Scottish Archive Network ( scan.org.uk/ catalogue) to see what exists.
Surviving poll books are listed
in Handlist of British Parliamentary Poll Books (University of Leicester, 1984) – supplemented by New Discoveries of Poll Books, Parliamentary History, Vol. 24, Issue 3 (2005) by Edmund M Green; and in Poll Books 1696-1872: A Directory of Holdings in Great
Britain, by Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers (The Family History Partnership, 4th edition, 2008).
Some of the rarer poll books have been published in facsimile, several by The Family History Partnership, and others by local record societies. Many have been filmed by FamilySearch or are available on CD.
Others are available online for free: electoralregisters.org.uk/ pollbooks.htm lists many of these (there are also numerous examples on archive.org) as well as those available at ancestry.co.uk and thegenealogist.co.uk
Public voting encouraged intimidation as this print from 1775 shows