England Electoral Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Electoral Records

Some history of the various franchises is given here in order to understand the four main kinds of electoral records—freeholders lists, burgess rolls, poll books and electoral registers. The chart below lucidates the meanings of some words found in the documents.

Chart: Election Definitions

One who busies himself in political elections
Person qualified to election to a parochial office by virtue of his holding in the parish
Voter; one who has the franchise; one who has right of election, especially of Members of Parliament.

Electoral or Electors Register,

Roll or List

The older term for voters list or register
Body of electors or voters
Voters list or register
A more colloquial, modern term for Electoral Register or Roll
Free Vote
Secret Ballot


The Poor Law Franchise

By Gilbert’s Act of 1782 the election of guardians of the poor (in the few places that had them then) was given only to owners or occupiers of premises assessed at £5 or more. Some areas had less than ten people in this category and this restriction did not apply there.

Unions for most parishes were created in the New Poor Law 1834, and the guardians were elected by all owners of land and ratepayers rated for one year, in their respective parish unions. The number of votes varied according to their poor rate assessment.

The Public Health Act 1848 required local public health boards to be elected by all landowners and ratepayers. Again, the number of votes varied according to their poor rate assessment. Members of the boards had to live in the area or within seven miles. In boroughs the councils acted as the boards.

The Local Government Franchise

Local government enfranchisement was more comprehensive, earlier, than that for parliament. The most important forms of local government were:

  • Vestries

This was the most common form of local administration until well into the 19th century and could be either:

  • An open vestry at which all male ratepayers could speak and vote. From 1818 each ratepayer had between one and six votes depending on the amount he paid in poor rates. From 1819 it was possible for a small representative vestry or poor law committee to be appointed which generally consisted of the incumbent, churchwardens, overseers and some of the wealthier parishioners.


  • A select vestry whose members were few and nominated by Parliamentary Act or co-opted, with no participation of ratepayers. By an Act of 1831 the select vestry could be chosen by the ratepayers, each one who had paid rates for one year having one vote for each vacancy. One third of this kind of select vestry retired each year.
  • Municipal Corporations
    Most boroughs had, until 1835, obtained their status by charter, which gave them various rights such as:
  • To levy a toll at the town market.
  • To send a representative to the House of Commons.
  • To hold a court dealing with civil and some lesser criminal matters.

The administering body, which may have been called by various names, perpetuated itself without public elections. Shelagh Bond describes the records, called hall books, of the borough of New Windsor 1653-1725 which are typical of any small borough.

The reform of the franchise for municipal elections came in 1835 and was similar to that of the 1832 Reform Act for Parliamentary elections (see below). Now, any man could vote who had:

  • Occupied a property in the parish as owner or tenant for 21/2 years, or
  • Had paid poor rates, or
  • Lived within seven miles of the borough for the previous six months.
  • Town councillors in the 178 boroughs affected were now to be elected for a maximum three-year term, although aldermen could serve for six years. Women with the necessary property qualifications and who paid rates could vote in local elections from 1869.
  • Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW)

In 1855 an overall local authority for London, the Metropolitan Board of Works, was established, mostly from nominations from the vestries. Underneath the MBW, district board were set up and their membership elected by the vestries.

  • County Councils and County Borough Councils

In 1888 elected county councils, as well as councils for towns with a population over 50,000 (County Boroughs) were organized. These took over the administrative responsibilities of the county quarter sessions and appointed their own medical officers. County councils were given further powers:

  • Housing and planning from 1890.
  • Elementary and secondary education from 1902.

However, outside the county boroughs public health was administered by urban and rural sanitary authorities. The records of these bodies are in local record offices, and county councils and county borough councils were abolished in 1974.

Local Government Outside London

In 1894 the civil functions of vestries outside London were transferred to new parish councils (parish meetings in rural areas); and urban and rural sanitary authorities became rural and urban district councils. All county and parliamentary electors were given one vote each and any electors, including women who had been resident for 12 months, were eligible for election.

Another local government Act of 1899 converted the London vestries into borough councils, with aldermen being co-opted by councillors. Women were not allowed to be councillors until 1907. A common franchise for county councils, boroughs, parishes and urban and district councils was established in the Representation of the People Act 1918.

Burial Board Franchise

The election of burial boards by vestries commenced in 1852 in London, and 1853 elsewhere. Board members had to be ratepayers.

School Board Franchise

The Education Act 1870 required the election of school boards by:

  • All burgesses in boroughs.
  • All parishioners rated for one year in London.
  • All ratepayers elsewhere.

The system was unusual in that each voter had one vote for each vacancy but he could choose to cast all his votes for one candidate.

For further details on local government and its elections see Richardson.

The Parliamentary Franchise

Before the 1832 Reform Act the House of Commons consisted of:

  • Burgesses elected by towns, with the franchise depending upon the borough’s customs and its charter. There were some boroughs in which all householders (known as potwallers or potwallopers i.e. anyone occupying a room with a fireplace at which they cooked their own food) had the right to vote, but in others only a few, such as freemen, had this right. There were a large number of rotten boroughs, whose population had declined dramatically but who still returned members to parliament. Many of them were controlled by a single landowner who bribed his constituents well, and were much resented by the growing industrial towns, especially in the north, that had very scant representation. An example is the town of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in Dorset. In had fewer than 3,000 inhabitants in the 1760s yet returned four MPs. Reeves describes the situation in the rotten borough (and Cinque Port) of New Romney, Kent.
  • Knights of the shire elected by counties. This meant that large tenant farmers in the counties did not have the right to vote.
  • Representatives elected by Oxford and Cambridge and, from 1867, London universities.
A research enquiry concerning election bobbins led me to find that both Northampton and Bedford, centres of lace-making, were potwalloper boroughs where all adult men (approximately 60%) not receiving alms or poor relief had the vote before 1832. Many would have been husbands of lace-makers and distribution of free bobbins, with suitable slogans of-course, was a popular way of gaining publicity. There is a bone bobbin inscribed Vote for Althorp in the Abington Museum, Northampton—John Charles Spencer, Viscount Althorp held the seat for Northampton from 1806-1832.

The Representation of the People Act (RPA, but usually called the Reform Act) of 1832 largely corrected the geographical imbalance of seats but the majority of voters were still forty-shilling freeholders. Of the rotten boroughs 56 were disenfranchised and 30 reduced to one member only, whilst 22 new boroughs were created to send two members and 20 to send one member. Gibson and Rogers Poll Books (1990) has a map of pre- and post-1832 parliamentary representation as well as a list of general elections from 1715-1874, and there is interesting discussion by them and Herber (Ancestral Trails, 2003). The rotten borough of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis was reduced to two MPs in 1832 and in 1885 the town was merged into a county constituency (White).

The Representation of the People Act 1867 extended the franchise to over two and a half million men by reducing the property qualifications including the new £10 householders. In addition some 45 constituencies were redistributed.

The Representation of the People Act 1884 gave a further one and half million men the vote by reducing the qualification in the counties to be similar to that in towns. The next year a separate measure equalized the ratio of population to representation throughout the country.

Chart: The Parliamentary Franchise

Extension of the Parliamentary Franchise
About 1 in 10 adult males could vote, with different qualifications in counties, boroughs and universities. In counties, it was freehold estate worth,( that is the value to the owner if he leased it to a tenant), 40 shillings or more a year.
In counties: (a) 40 shilling-freeholders .
(b) Men having a life interest in, or occupation of, property worth £2-£5 a year.
(c) Holders of land worth at least £10
(d) Tenant occupiers paying rent of £50 a year or more.
In boroughs: Owners or tenants of buildings worth at least £10 a year if they had 12 months residence and had paid their poor rates and assessed taxes.
About 1 in 7 adult males could now vote.
Large reduction of property qualification in boroughs and counties e.g. to land holdings worth £5; and men over 21 who occupied as owner or tenant for 12 months a separate dwelling (with no regard to value), or lodgings of £10 unfurnished value. About 1 in 3 adult men could not vote.
Further reduction of property qualification, affecting especially rural areas. About 4 out of 5 men allowed to vote, although Gibson and Rogers estimate that only 60% actually registered.
All men over 21 with 6 month’s residence, and women over 30 who were occupiers in their own right or married to men entitled to a local government vote. About 6 million women, roughly 60% of them, now qualified to vote.
Soldiers and sailors age 19 and 20 were given the right to vote in these 2 years.
All women aged 21 and over could now vote.
All those registered for Parliamentary elections became able to vote in local elections.
Everyone aged 18 and over.

The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave the vote to any man over 21 who could prove six month’s residence, regardless of value of rent etc. Many women over 30 were enfranchised, and plural voting, which gave as many votes to a man as he had residences in different constituencies, was abolished almost completely. Curiously, the university franchise was extended to graduates of all universities, in addition to their residential vote. The receipt of poor law relief no longer disqualified a person from voting. There were also some reforms in registration procedures and transference of responsibility to the Clerk of the borough or county, as well as having the polls open for one day only. The Equal Franchise Act 1928 gave women the same voting rights as men, and the 1948 Representation of the People Act abolished both the university vote and the city of London constituency so everyone had only one vote.
There were also those who were disqualified from voting at various times, such as:

  • Aliens, unless naturalized since 1870.
  • Anyone convicted of election bribery, for five years thereafter.
  • Commissioners and most collectors of government revenues before 1918.
  • Election agents and others paid to help at elections until 1918.
  • Felons i.e. anyone serving a prison sentence.
  • Idiots.
  • Lunatics, although not if in a temporary period of lucidity.
  • Many customs and excise officers (until 1918).
  • Peers of the realm (for parliament as, until very recently, they were entitled to sit in the House of Lords). Peeresses were qualified from 1918-1963.
  • Perjurors.
  • Police serving and for six months thereafter (until 1887).
  • Postmasters (until 1918).
  • Those receiving public alms, their spouses and children until 1918.
  • Those whose names have been omitted from the register.
  • World War I conscientious objectors 1918-1923.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Taxes, Lists, Business, Electoral and Insurance Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.