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Understanding electoral registers and poll books

Understanding electoral registers

Annual electoral registers were introduced by the First Reform Act in 1832.  Historic registers are useful for establishing where people were living, especially outside census years or for more recent periods when no census is available.  The registers can also be used to find out when particular residential streets or properties were built.  Do remember, however, that only those properties that actually housed a registered elector will appear in that year's register.  House names and numbers may change over time, and in older registers the addresses shown may not be very specific.  If you are trying to trace a property you may need to look instead for the names of people known to live there. 

The registers are not indexed, except by parish or place-name, although the Act of 1832 required them to be arranged alphabetically by surname within each parish - an arrangement re-affirmed by legislation in 1843 and 1868.  In urban areas registers started to be arranged in the modern way, by street, after 1878, but in some rural parishes the arrangement by surname persisted into the 1960s or beyond. 

Who appears in electoral registers

The right to vote (the franchise) has been extended over time.  The rules have been very complex, and before 1885 they were different in boroughs and counties.  Registration has always been voluntary and not everyone who is qualified to register actually does so.  However, you can expect county registers to show you:

  • 1832: Male owners and tenants of larger properties
  • 1869: Male owners of property worth £5 a year, and male tenants paying £12 a year 
  • 1885: All male householders, and tenants paying £10 a year
  • 1918: All male residents over 21, and married women over 30
  • 1929: Everyone over 21
  • 1969: Everyone over 18

No woman had a Parliamentary vote before 1918.  However, the Parliamentary and local government franchises were not the same, and after 1869 a few female householders do appear as local government electors.

Finding electoral registers on Essex Archives Online

The Essex Record Office holds Essex electoral registers from 1833 to c.2001.  To find them

  1. Search the catalogue for the word ‘electoral’ and the name of the place you are interested in
  2. If you wish, add a date range
  3. Click Search

No registers were produced in 1916, 1917, or 1940-1944, and there are gaps in the county series, especially in the early years.  The ERO holds very few registers of any date from borough constituencies, and between 1889 and 1970 successive areas of what is now Greater London disappeared from the county registers when they obtained separate Parliamentary seats. For an outline list of electoral registers that we do not hold please see below. 

Viewing electoral registers

Images of the county electoral registers for a range of dates between 1833 and 1867, plus 1918 and 1929, are available on Essex Archives Online. If a register is available as images, you will see a picture frames icon  in your results list, and when you click through to an individual register a set of thumbnails will appear on the page.  Full-sized images of these registers can be seen free of charge in the Essex Record Office searchroom.  If you would like to see them online you will need to register and then buy a subscription.

For other years, where no images are available, you may inspect the original registers free of charge in the Essex Record Office searchroom (reader's ticket required).  For more details please see our guide on How to order documents.  Alternatively, you can apply for a search from our search service.

Electoral registers not held by the ERO

  1. There are many gaps in the earliest run of county electoral registers, 1832-1868. There are unofficial examples in the Essex Record Office library (LIB/POL 1) of the registers for the northern division, 1832, 1838 and 1845, and for the southern division, 1832, 1839, 1840, 1845 and 1848, but these are not available online. Some other gaps can be filled by the lists of electors (Q/RPc).  To find these, try an advanced search for a parish name and the word Q/RPc. 
  2. The ERO holds very few registers for the separate borough constituencies that existed at Colchester (pre-1918), Harwich (pre-1885) and Maldon (pre-1885). Some borough registers, mainly for Colchester, are held by the British Library.  However, the county registers do include some electors from these places.
  3. There are no electoral registers in the Essex Record Office for the County Borough of Southend, 1918-1948. The British Library holds registers for 1937-1938 and 1947-1948, but other years do not survive. The Borough area included Canewdon, Leigh, Prittlewell, Southchurch and Southend. From 1949 the Southend area was divided into two constituencies – East and West. No registers are deposited in the Essex Record Office for either constituency, but Southend Library has registers from 1949 onwards. From 1949-1954 the parishes of Ashingdon, Barling, Canewdon, Eastwood, Foulness, Great Stambridge, Great Wakering, Hawkwell, Hockley, Leigh, Little Stambridge, Little Wakering, North Shoebury, Paglesham, Prittlewell, Rochford, Shopland, South Fambridge, South  Shoebury, Southchurch, Southend and Sutton were part of the Southend East and West constituencies.
  4. From 1918 Great Chishall, Little Chishall and Heydon became part of Cambridgeshire and Kedington became part of Suffolk.
  5. Between 1948 and 1955 the parishes of Brentwood, Great Warley, Hutton, Ingrave and Shenfield were part of the Romford constituency, for which the ERO holds no registers.
  6. Between 1971 and 1974 the ERO holds no registers for the Thurrock Constituency. Copies are held at Grays Library, Orsett Road, Grays RM17 5DX. This area contains the parishes of Aveley, Billericay, Bowers Gifford, Bulphan, Chadwell St Mary, Corringham, East Tilbury, Fobbing, Grays Thurrock, Horndon-on-the-Hill, Laindon, Langdon Hills, Lee Chapel, Little Thurrock, Mucking, Nevendon, North Ockendon, Orsett, Pitsea, South Ockendon, Stanford-le-Hope, Vange, West Thurrock, West Tilbury and Wickford.
  7. West Ham and East Ham became separate Parliamentary boroughs from 1889 and 1918 respectively.  From those points, electoral registers can be seen at the London Borough of Newham's Local Studies Library, Stratford Library, 3 The Grove, London E15 1EL.  A few electors continue to appear in Essex registers for parts of the West Ham area up to 1915.  Microfilm copies of these registers can also be seen at Newham.
  8. Leyton and Walthamstow registers from 1918 onwards and Chingford registers from 1971 onwards can be seen at the London Borough of Waltham Forest's Archives and Local Studies Library, Vestry House Museum, Vestry Road, London E17 9NH.
  9. Barking and Dagenham registers after 1945 are at the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham's Archives and Local Studies Centre, Valence House, Becontree Avenue, Dagenham RM8 3HT.
  10. Registers for [Great] Ilford from 1918 onwards and for Wanstead and Woodford from 1945 onwards are held by the London Borough of Redbridge's Information and Heritage Service, Redbridge Central Library, Clements Road, Ilford IG1 1EA.
  11. Romford and Havering-atte-Bower registers after 1945 and Cranham, Great Warley, Hornchurch, Rainham, Upminster and Wennington registers after 1948 are held at the London Borough of Havering’s Local Studies and Family History Centre, Romford Central Library, St Edward’s Way, Romford RM1 3AR.

Poll books

The secret ballot was introduced in 1872.  Before then, the way in which individual electors cast their vote may be recorded in poll books. Typically, poll books show the voter's name and parish, and details of the estate that qualified him to vote. The names of occupiers may also appear.

An Act of 1696 required the sheriff holding a county election to appoint polling clerks, who were to 'set down the names of each freeholder, and the place of his freehold, and for whom he shall poll'.  A further Act in 1711 added a requirement for the freeholder's place of abode, and provided for the official poll books in county elections to be preserved among the records of the county sessions.  The Essex Quarter Sessions records include a set of handwritten poll books for the Parliamentary elections in 1810, 1812, 1830-1832, 1835-1837 and 1841.  They relate to the county elections only (not the boroughs), and those for 1835-1837 and 1841 cover only the southern division.  To find them, go to Advanced search and type poll book into the phrase field, with the addition of the word quarter. You can refine the search by adding a date or date range.  Alternatively, try a Document Reference search for the reference Q/RPe. 

Under legislation of 1843, the official poll books for future Parliamentary elections in both counties and boroughs were no longer to be held locally but were to be collected centrally in the Crown Office, part of the Court of Chancery.  The Crown Office collection does not survive.

The Act of 1696 laid down that for a reasonable charge a copy of the county poll was to be provided to anyone on request.  Information in the official poll books was thus available to publishers and others.  The Essex Record Office holds a variety of mainly printed unofficial poll books for the county elections in 1679, 1694, 1710, 1715, 1734, 1763, 1768, 1774, 1810, 1830, 1832, 1847 (North Essex only), 1857 (South Essex only), 1859 (South Essex only), 1865 (South Essex only) and 1868 (East Essex only).  An advanced search for the phrase poll book and a date will find these. 

The Boroughs of Colchester, Harwich and Maldon returned their own MPs, separately from the county.  For Colchester, the Essex Record Office holds poll books for various dates between 1705 and 1865.  For Harwich, we have a copy of a single poll book for 1857.  For Maldon, we hold poll books for dates between 1761 and 1865. An advanced search for the phrase poll book and the word Colchester, Harwich or Maldon, without the word quarter, will find them.

The poll books are not yet available online and need to be viewed in person in the Essex Record Office searchroom (reader's ticket required).  For more details please see our guide on How to order documents.  Alternatively, you can apply for a search from our search service.