Lists of names are vital sources of information for family and local historians. They can be used to reconstruct historical communities, and to identify particular individuals in time and place. They are particularly valuable where they cover large areas, such as counties – especially if they give locations. Such lists enable you to trace the distribution of surnames across many parishes, and locate the places where particular surnames were to be found at particular dates. Given that information, you can then check the parish registers and other records for those places. This webpage provides a brief explanation of what pollbooks and electoral registers are, what information they contain, where they can be found, and how they can be used. I have also listed a number of facsimile editions which are available for purchase. Finally, I have listed a number of useful websites, including some which index particular pollbooks and registers.
Poll books provide extensive information on who voted in parliamentary elections. The earliest is dated 1696; they continued until 1872, when voting was made secret. They record the names of voters, usually their addresses or parishes of residence, and show which candidate(s) they voted for. Sometimes they include other information, such as the occupations of voters, and whether they were resident or out-voters. There is little uniformity in the way in which information is presented. That depended on the whims of the sheriff and his officers who took the poll. Many listed voters by parish, by ward, or by street. Others are idiosyncratic. The London Poll book1768 is alphabetical, but by companies within each letter of the alphabet. The Westminster Poll book 1774 is a jumble; voters appear to be listed in the order in which they cast their votes! Its successor in 1818 provides an alphabetical list of voters by parish, indicating their residences and occupations. Poll books do not normally have surname indexes, so, unless a place is known, it may be necessary to check every page for a particular surname. Occasionally, places are indexed, as in the Yorkshire Poll book 1807. The place index in the Suffolk Poll book 1710 indicates the number of votes cast for each candidate.
Prior to 1832, the right to vote varied between constituencies. In county constituencies, it was held by every freeholder who possessed land worth forty shillings per annum. In the boroughs, the franchise could be very narrow – Old Sarum only had 11 voters in 1802-3 – or it could be virtual household suffrage. The Westminster Poll book 1774, for example, lists over 7000 voters. County pollbooks generally list thousands of voters; over 5,000 are listed for Suffolk in 1710.
Poll books are invaluable sources of information for both family and local historians, although their limitations need to be recognised. They are rarely indexed, and locating particular names may be a tedious process. They only record the names of people who actually voted, not those who were entitled to vote. And the franchise, as noted above, was mostly limited to the propertied. Given these limitations, there is much to be learnt from them. The researcher can use them to study a wide range of topics, for example, surnames and family history, politics, social structure, and occupations.
Poll books do not survive for every constituency, or for every election. Some were printed; others remain in manuscript. They can be found in most local studies libraries and record offices. There are substantial collections at the Institute of Historical Research, at London’s Guildhall Library, and in the British Library. Printed poll books sometimes survive in multiple copies, and can be found in various different repositories. A comprehensive listing is provided by Jeremy Gibson & Colin Rogers, Poll books 1696-1872. A Directory to Holdings in Great Britain (3rd edition, Family History Partnership, 2008). This book also provides a more extensive introduction to their use than can be provided here. Another useful, but less comprehensive, list is provided by John Sims, A Handlist of British Parliamentary Poll book(University of Leicester, History Department and University of California, Riverside, 1984). This is out of print, but can be consulted in libraries. It is supplemented by Edmund M. Green, ‘New Discoveries of Poll books’, Parliamentary History, vol. 24, issue 3 (2005), p. 332-67.
A handful of poll books have been reprinted in recent years, and are available for purchase (some from this site – see below). A few have been issued on CD.
Electoral registers list everyone who was eligible to vote in parliamentary and local elections. They were introduced by the Representation of the People Act 1832; henceforth, the right to vote could only be exercised by those on the register. Registers have been compiled annually since then, except in 1917 and between 1940 and 1944. They did not entirely replace poll books until 1872, when the ballot became secret. As the franchise became wider, so electoral registers became fuller. The 1832 act probably doubled the number of those eligible to vote. Further acts passed in 1867, 1884, 1918 and 1928. Each substantially increased the size of the electorate, and hence the number of names recorded in electoral registers. Electoral registers give the name and ‘place of abode’ of the voter, and (until 1948) the nature of his/her qualification to vote, together with the names of any tenants. For a few years after 1918, the names of ‘absent voters’ in the services were noted, with their service details. Separate ‘Absent voters’ registers can sometimes be found (a handful are available online – see below). Between 1885 and 1915 the names of the landlords of those who qualified on the lodger’s franchise were noted. Also noted are the names of those entitled to vote in local government elections, but not for Members of Parliament, and vice versa. Some extant registers include hand-written annotations, such as notes on deaths and removals. Copies of registers originally used by party agents may indicate voting intentions.
Copies of electoral registers can usually be found in local studies libraries. The British Library also has a substantial collection. A full listing of what is available is given in Jeremy Gibson’s Electoral Registers 1832-1948 (3rd edition. Family History Partnership, 2008). Its introduction provides more information than can be given here. Full details of British Library holdings are also given in Richard H. A. Cheffins’ Constituencies From the Great Reform Act with the British Library’s holdings of Burgess Rolls, Poll books and Other Registers (British Library, 1998). A new edition is imminent. Researchers should also consult the British Library’s page on United Kingdom Electoral Registers and their Uses.
Electoral registers are probably even more useful to family and local historians than are pollbooks. They are annual, so will show when particular individuals became eligible to vote in a particular place, and when they left that place. Some of the information they provide may lead to other even more valuable sources of information, e.g. the details provided for absent voters may enable you to trace the latter’s service records. Using them may be tedious, due to the lack of indexes, but the rewards for both family and local historians may be considerable.
The Family History Partnership is able to supply printed facsimiles of the following pollbooks and electoral registers:
Westminster Poll book 1774
Westminster Poll book 1818
Westminster Poll book 1841
Cambridgeshire Poll book 1780
Cambridgeshire Poll book 1802
Cambridgeshire Poll book 1831
List of the Burgesses of the Borough of Cambridge 1844/5
List of the Burgesses of the Borough of Cambridge 1860/61
Norfolk Poll book 1768
Norfolk Poll book 1806
Norfolk Poll book 1817
Somerset Electoral Register Eastern Division 1832
Somerset Electoral Register Western Division 1832
Suffolk Poll book 1710
Suffolk Poll book 1790
Yorkshire Poll book 1741
Yorkshire Poll book 1807
Yorkshire West Riding Poll book 1835
Hull Poll book 1835
With the exception of the titles for Cambridge and Cambridgeshire (published by Spindrift), these are all published in the Raymonds Original Poll books series by S.A. & M.J. Raymond.
In addition to these, a number of pollbooks have been published by local record societies. These may be found in major reference libraries, and include:
Collett-White, James (ed.). How Bedfordshire Voted, 1685-1735. The Evidence of Local Poll books. Volume 1: 1685-1715. Volume 2: 1715-1734. Bedfordshire Historical Record Society, vols. 85 & 87 (2006-08).
Speck, William Arthur & Gray, W. A. (eds.). ‘London Poll books 1713’ in: Creaton, Heather Janet (ed.), London Politics 1713-1717. London Record Society, vol. 17 (1981), p. 62-129.
Read, Myrtle Joyce (ed.). Poll-Books of Nottingham and Nottinghamshire, 1710. Thoroton Society, 1958.
Miscellaneous Records. Including Ecclesiastical Returns in East Sussex in 1603. Poll for the election of Knights of the Shire of Sussex in 1705. Calendar of References to Sussex in the Harleian Manuscripts. Extracts from the Episcopal Register of Bishop Praty, 1483-1545. Sussex Record Society, 1905.
A number of websites offer information on pollbooks and electoral registers. Some of these include editions and/or indexes of pollbooks.