Poll books list the men who voted in parliamentary elections and the candidates for whom they voted until the secret ballot was introduced in 1872. Poll books can be used like the trade directories of the 19th century to locate individuals and to trace their life spans, as well as to discover their political affiliations.
Poll books trace their origins to a 1696 Act of Parliament which was designed to prevent disputed election results and fraud. Sheriffs were obliged to make a list of voters and the candidate they voted for in county elections and these could then be published as poll books. There are some lists of voters that survive pre-1696 but these are very rare indeed.
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. The last general election for which true poll books exist is that of 1868.
Who could be listed?
In county elections before the 1832 Great Reform Act, the basic qualification for the vote in county elections was ownership of freehold land worth 40 shillings (£2) a year by men aged 21 and over and until 1774 the man had to reside in the county in which he voted.
Forty shillings had been fixed by an Act of1429 which assessed that an income of forty shillings a year made a man independent, being sufficient to furnish him with all the necessaries of life. However by 1832 forty shillings would just about support a labouring man for a month. Despite this fact the number of people who had such estates in England and Wales was then only about 247,000.
From 1763 the holders of annuities or rent charges on freehold land were also entitled to vote.
Before 1832 the qualification for the vote in borough elections varied greatly from place to place, much depending on local custom.
What You May Find in the Records
Within a poll book the list of electors may be arranged by parish , ward hundred or township.
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 and elector’s exact address and (if different) the address of the property that gave him the right to vote. They also may include the voter’s occupation.