The road to universal suffrage

Despite all the commemorations in 2018 to mark a century of women having the vote, genuine universal suffrage on equal terms didn’t happen until 1928.  Over a period of about a hundred years, there were huge changes in our ancestors’ rights to representation at Westminster.

When we know who was entitled to vote and on what basis, finding one of our ancestors on an electoral register or in a poll book for a particular year means we have valuable information about them and their status within society.  With that in mind I thought it would be worth taking a look at the progression of reforms that started in 1832 with the Great Reform Act and ended in 1928.

If your ancestor appears on electoral documentation prior to 1832, they almost certainly held freehold property.  However, this restrictive qualification meant that by 1780 only 214,000 people in England and Wales – fewer than 3% of the population – had the right to vote.  Of course, virtually all were men.  It was around this time that reform groups committed to ‘universal’ (male) suffrage began to come together, and pressure for parliamentary reform began to mount.  It wasn’t just the property qualification that made the system unrepresentative: despite the growth of certain industrial towns and cities, and the reduced or even non-existant populations of formerly flourishing Tudor towns, constituency boundaries had not changed for centuries.  Consequently, economically powerful manufacturers and businessmen in places like Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester had no political representation in Westminster, while landowning families in ‘rotten boroughs’ benefitted from almost personal representation by one or even two MPs.

If one of your ancestors was entitled to vote you’ll find him (or before 1832, very occasionally her) on the Electoral Registers and Poll Books for each of the general elections.  These differ in that the former shows who was entitled to vote, while the latter, published after the poll, actually records how each person voted.  The right to a secret ballot was introduced by the 1872 Ballot Act, so it’s only before this date that you’ll find a Poll Book.  You’ll find these documents at local record offices and central libraries, and some are also on Ancestry (Search → Card Catalog → enter search terms ‘Poll’ or ‘Electoral’) and FindMyPast (Search → A-Z of Record Sets → enter search terms ‘Poll’ or ‘Electoral’).

In the days when the right to vote depended on freehold possession of land, you’ll see the location of that land.  If this isn’t where your ancestor was residing you’ll find their place of residence too.  Often, the right to vote of gentlemen in the boroughs depended on their owning land in the wider county.

Beware, though, of jumping to conclusions.  Since the earlier Electoral and Poll Books include only the village or area where the individual lives, not his actual address, sometimes you can’t be absolutely certain that the person listed is your ancestor: you need additional information.  Compare the following two examples:

The 1741 Electoral Register and Poll Book for the county of York shows Lister Symondson, clerk, living at Kirkby Overblow but records that the freehold property entitling him to vote was in nearby Pannall.  I can be sure that this is my 7xG grandfather, because I have his name, his occupation (which I know to be correct), his current residence (where he is vicar, and presumably living in the vicarage) and the location of his freehold, which is where I know he was curate for more than two decades before becoming vicar.  Although I’m able to use my existing knowledge to confirm that this is my Lister, the documents also give me new information: Lister held freehold property; he had the right to vote; and how he voted: Whig.

Compare this to Robert Mann, who is listed in the 1817 Poll Book for the county of Norfolk, living in Norwich but entitled to vote by virtue of freehold property in Great Yarmouth.  This person may be my 4xG grandfather, who had lived in Norwich since at least 1789, but was baptised in Great Yarmouth and had family connections there.  He was a saddler / harness maker, having completed his apprenticeship in Wymondham, for which his family paid the princely sum of £31 10 shillings, suggesting they were financially sound.  But none of this gives me the kind of definite evidence I have with the previous example.  There is more than one Robert Mann living in Norwich at this time.  I have no evidence to suggest my Robert has freehold property in Great Yarmouth, and this Robert may or may not be mine.

Things start to change.

Representation of the People Act 1832
AKA: First Reform Act or Great Reform Act 1832

  • Changes were made to the constituencies, removing ‘rotten boroughs’ and creating 67 new contituencies to provide representation within Westminster for boroughs, including the large industrial towns and cities which had previously had no MP.
  • The vote was extended to all male householders within the boroughs who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more, also to some lodgers.
  • In the counties, the property qualification was broadened, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers

Even in terms of extending the vote to men, then, the Great Reform Act was not so ‘great’.  The property qualification still meant that 6 out of 7 adult males were excluded from the voting process.  In addition, something I hadn’t appreciated until watching the BBC series Gentleman Jack last year: by defining a voter as ‘a male person’, the Great Reform Act in fact removed the franchise from a number of women landowners who had previously had that right.

More information here.

Representation of the People Act 1867
AKA: Second Reform Act 1867

  • In the boroughs, all male householders over the age of 21 were now granted the vote, as well as lodgers paying rent of £10 a year or more.
  • In the counties, the property threshold was reduced, and the vote was extended to agricultural landowners and tenants with very small amounts of land.

This Act made significant inroads towards universal male suffrage, doubling the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men.

More information here.

It’s the 1868 General Election, then, where we’re likely to start to see more of our ancestors in the documentation, and by now actual addresses are given. This serves as an extra check-in between the 1861 and 1871 censuses.  A CD ROM of the Leeds Poll Book that I bought some years ago has paid dividends.  You might find something similar for your areas of interest through local family history societies.

Note: Although women were excluded from general elections, from 1869 all women ratepayers aged 21 and over had the right to vote in municipal (local) elections.  So if your female ancestor after that time was a shop or business owner or occupied her own home, you might find her on local authority electoral registers.

Representation of the People Act 1884
AKA: Third Reform Act 1884

  • Established a uniform (male) franchise throughout the country, bringing the counties in line with the 1867 borough householder and lodger franchise qualification.

However, about 40% of men still did not have the vote.  In addition of course, women were still completely excluded from the process.

More information here.

Representation of the People Act 1918

  • Almost all property qualifications for men were removed.
  • The vote was granted to women over 30 who were householders, wives of householders, occupiers of property with an annual rent of £5; and in university constituencies, to women graduates.
  • There were also important administrative changes, including the annual updating of the electoral register and instituting the present system of holding general elections on one day.  (Previously polling had been open for several days – in 1784, actually for 47 days!  Find this and other strange facts here!)

The electorate tripled from 7.7 million to 21.4 million, with women now accounting for 43% of the electorate.

More information here.

Representation of the People (Equal Franchise Act) 1928

  • With the lowering of the qualifying age to 21, women were granted full equality with male voters.

More information here.

If this is an avenue you hadn’t thought to explore before, I hope you make some interesting finds.  It would be lovely to read some of them in the comments.

You’ll find a list of General Elections from 1802 to the present day here.  You might be able to work out when each of your ancestors first voted.  Bear in mind that prior to the formation of the Labour Party (February 1900) there were only two parties: the Whigs (Liberals) and Tories.

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