Poll Books

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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.

Poll Books

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

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