These annual records list those who were eligible to vote and a new release from Findmypast containing 220 million names can help you track down your ancestors, as Paul Blake explains
Paul Blake explains how you can use a major new release from Findmypast to find your ancestors who were among those eligible to vote
In the early 19th century, the Tories had been the dominant force in Parliament, strongly opposed to
increasing the number of people who could vote
The introduction of printed electoral registers in 1832, which list all those eligible to vote, was a major step forward in the democratic process. Although the decennial census from 1841 should list everyone, the electoral registers give an annual record for us to refer to, even though they included only a minority of the male population.
As the franchise widened, more and more individuals were recorded, which makes electoral registers a major family history resource after the last available census of 1911. Until a few years ago, electoral registers were difficult and tedious to use, with the only national collection being held by the British Library. However, in recent years many registers have been digitised and made available online, culminating in the recent addition of those for 1832-1932 on Findmypast.
Voting in Britain
In the early 19th century, the Tories had been the dominant force in Parliament, strongly opposed to increasing the number of people who could vote. In November 1830, the Whigs took control, pledging electoral reforms.
On 22 September 1831, the House of Commons passed the Reform Bill, only for it to be defeated in the Tory-dominated House of Lords. Riots followed in several British towns, the most serious being in Bristol in October 1831. Parliamentary chaos ensued: Earl Grey’s government resigned; the Duke of Wellington, a Tory, failed to form a replacement government; and Grey was asked to return to prevent further civil unrest. The Lords eventually backed down and the Representation of the People Act, usually known as the first Reform Act or Great Reform Act, was passed on 4 June 1832.
The Act applied only in England and Wales; the separate Scottish Reform Act 1832 and Irish Representation of the People (Ireland) Act 1832
enacted similar legislation in those two countries.
The Act created 67 new constituencies, including the fast-growing industrial towns that previously had no representation at all, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bradford and Leeds. The Act increased the electorate from around 366,000 to 650,000, which, because of property qualifications, was about 18 per cent of the total adult male population in England and Wales.
Nevertheless, many were disappointed with the terms of the Act. The vast majority of working-class men were still excluded from voting, while it also marked a step back for women as it confined the franchise to “male persons” for the first time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a handful of women not only qualified for the vote, but also exercised it.
The 1832 Act had also failed to introduce a secret ballot, which wasn’t addressed until the Ballot Act in 1872 was introduced following illegal practices at the 1868 General Election.
The 1832 Act was dwarfed by the huge impact of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts. The 1867 Reform Act was the second major attempt to reform Britain’s electoral process. It almost doubled the size of the electorate, and enfranchised 1.5 million men.
All male urban householders and male lodgers paying at least £10 rent a year for unfurnished accommodation received the vote. There was also a redistribution of parliamentary seats and the University of London was given a seat, joining Oxford and Cambridge universities.
The 1884 Reform Act did for rural Britain what the 1867 Act had done for towns and cities – all adult male householders and lodgers paying more than £10 rent a year for unfurnished accommodation received the vote. The electorate after this Act stood at 5.5 million – about 60 per cent of the adult male population. However, none of these Acts gave any political rights to women and so continued to ignore a major section of British society.
The property qualification was finally removed, for men, in 1918, when most males aged 21 and older became eligible to vote. The franchise was also extended to some women over the age of 30, but it wasn’t until 1928 that the voting age was made 21 for both men and women.
In 1969, the age limit was further reduced to 18 years old for both men and women. Uniquely, in the 2014 Scottish Referendum, the age was reduced to 16 years.
The 1832 Reform Act introduced a system of voter registration, to be administered by the overseers of the poor in every parish and township. An annual register of electors was compiled and printed, listing the names of those people entitled to vote during that year.
Electoral registers are compiled and arranged by polling districts, which combine to form parliamentary constituencies. They give the name and “place of abode” of the voter and, until 1948, the nature of their qualification to vote. Between 1885 and 1915, the names of landlords, weekly rent and
number of rooms rented for those who qualified to vote under the lodger’s franchise were also included. Between 1868 and 1928, the names of the very few women who had the municipal vote were included. From 1878, those entitled to vote at municipal but not parliamentary elections were recorded.
For a few years from 1945, the National Registration Identity Number was used to distinguish between two people with the same first name and/or initial at the same address. Some surviving registers include handwritten annotations, such as notes on deaths and removals.
Copies of registers originally used by party agents can occasionally be found and may indicate voting intentions.
Originally, there were different voters’ lists used for local and parliamentary elections, mainly because different rules applied to each: Burgess rolls list the people who were entitled to vote in local government elections; parliamentary registers list those entitled to vote in parliamentary elections; and parochial registers list people entitled to vote in parish council elections. Only from 1878 was a single register permitted (and later made mandatory) for each constituency incorporating the parliamentary and the Burgess lists. These are arranged by parliamentary division, polling district, then by address. Before 1878, they are usually ordered alphabetically by voters’ surname.
Electoral registers can show when an individual became eligible to vote in a particular place, and when they left that place or possibly died. The information they provide may lead to other valuable sources of information.
Although registers were produced for almost every year from 1832, there are some exceptions. Notably, during the two world wars, when no registers were prepared for 1916-17
(1915-17 in Scotland) and 1940-1944. In 1868, 1885, 19191926 and 1945-1946 two registers were published each year. From 2003, it’s been possible to opt out of the register’s public edition with two versions produced: the ‘full’ and the ‘edited’. In association with the British Library, Findmypast has now published the BL’s holdings of electoral registers from 1832 to 1932. This is the largest FMP collection, with over 220 million names. These have never been available online in one place before and will undoubtedly be a unique resource for genealogists.
The records are in PDF format and searching a PDF is different to transcribed records. Search options are currently limited, but you can call up the records by name and constituency, as well as by keyword. The returns are based on proximity (how close together the words are located). So a search for George Brown will also bring up William George Brown; or a search for Albert Smith may return John Smith of Albert Square. The name-variant search check box will not work with a PDF search, so you will need to try variants individually. But you can undertake wildcard searches using the Full Text Search Field: so *Bert* will return Albert and Bertram as well as Bert.
Results are not linked to a county, but work is in hand to try to relate constituencies to a county and to add this to the search options. You’ll get multiple results per person, as they will appear in the register each year that they’re registered to vote at that address. This could indicate when an individual or family may have arrived and left a particular address so you can trace your ancestor’s movements.
The polling booth during the General Election of 1873
The 1880 General Election
votes are counted in Southwark, south London
A huge crowd gathers to hear the result of the General Election of 1880 in Leeds, West Yorkshire