Electoral registers were introduced in 1832 and list all those people who were entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Burgess or freemens’ rolls listed the freemen of a city or borough (considered below). The freemen were often entitled to vote for the parliamentary representatives of the borough (or city) as well as for members of the city or borough corporation. From 1889, when elected county councils were introduced, electoral registers were also prepared for those elections.
England has been divided into parliamentary constituencies since medieval times. Until 1832 each English county was a constituency and returned two members to Parliament (except for Yorkshire which returned four members from 1821). Welsh counties had one MP each. Most English boroughs had two MPs, while most Welsh boroughs shared an MP with another borough. Until 1832 most boroughs were in southern England, but the Reform Act of 1832 (and later statutes) gave the new industrial towns of the north and midlands fairer representation. Most counties were divided into two or more constituencies and the number of MPs for each county was varied so as to better reflect population distribution. Further redistributions of seats took place in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
Until the late 19th century, the qualification for voting in parliamentary elections was generally linked to ownership of land and only a minority of men had the right to vote. From 1429 the qualification in the counties was ownership, by men aged 21 or over, of freehold land with an annual value (that is the value to the owner if he leased it to a tenant) of 40 shillings or more. In cities and boroughs the right to vote depended on local custom. In some boroughs, all householders (known as potwallopers) had the right to vote but, in others, only a few people, perhaps freemen, had the franchise.
Poll books for county and borough seats list the names of electors, their parish of residence and how they voted. Poll books may also state an elector’s exact address and (if different) the address of the property that gave him the right to vote. Within a poll book, the list of electors may be arranged by parish, ward, hundred or township. Poll books are extremely rare for the period prior to 1696, when Parliament made sheriffs responsible for recording the poll in county elections. An act of 1711 required poll books to be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace and so many poll books survive for elections after this date. In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced so that documents recording how men voted could no longer be prepared. The last general election for which true poll books exist is therefore that of 1868.
Electoral registers specify entitlement to vote (you could only vote if the register included your name) and not who voted or how votes were actually cast. Electoral registers for national elections have been compiled every year since 1832 (except 1916–17 and 1940–44).
The franchise for elections to Parliament was extended in 1832, 1867 and 1884. In 1832 the vote in the boroughs was given to a wider range of those men having an interest in property, including all male householders (so including tenants) of land worth at least £10 per year. In the counties the franchise was granted to the owners of property worth at least £10. This increased the electorate to almost one million men. In 1867 the electorate was increased to about 2.5 million. All male owners of real property worth £5 or more were enfranchised in the counties, together with those who occupied land and paid rent of £50 or more per year. In the boroughs, all owners of dwelling-houses and most occupiers, who paid rent of £10 or more per year, were given the vote. In 1884 the county franchise was widened (to approximately the same extent as in the boroughs), so that the majority of male householders over 21 were entitled to vote. In 1918 the franchise for men was extended to all those aged 21 normally resident in the constituency. Women did not obtain the vote in national elections until 1918, when it was limited to those over 30 who were householders, or the wives of householders. It was only in 1928 that the vote was granted to women over 21.
Until 1918 electoral registers listed the names of electors, their address and the nature of their qualification to vote in the constituency (for example “freehold house and land”). Many 19th-century registers contained separate lists for property owners and occupiers, so that all sections of a register should be checked. For much of the 19th century, the registers list the names of electors in alphabetical order, but the expansion of the electorate led to more and more registers being compiled in order of electoral wards, then streets and then by house numbers. This format became standard in 1918 when entitlement to vote was extended to all men normally resident in a constituency (and qualifying property became irrelevant). Registers since 1918 are so large that it is almost essential to know your ancestors’ address in order to find them.