Poll books were published from the late 1600s onwards, right through into the late 1800s.
Not only were polls not secret, lists of people were published, together with how they voted. Poll books often also contain their qualification for being able to vote, together with the address of the person. In general, one had to be a freeholder in order to vote. An owner of land or of a house. Some records also remain of the additions and removals from the lists of those entitled to vote, together with qualifications for being able to vote, but these are very rare.
The Sheriff’s Lists are books compiled annually containing the names and residences of every male freeholder in his county. This was for the purposes of summoning juries. Where they survive, they also complement the Poll Books for lists of freeholders.
The Poll Books probably do not contain all of the freeholders for a county. They are lists of those who voted, although in contested elections the candidates worked hard to ensure that most people did vote. Much more so than today.
Early Poll Books are very scarce. Northamptonshire has one for 1669, and Shropshire has them from 1713. There are very few others before 1760.
Poll books are a really good way of tracing your ancestors, where they lived in the county, and of course, their political inclinations. This is one of the resources that you can use to start to add meat onto the bones. Surprisingly, a person can be found more than once in a poll book, because they may have had land or a house in different parts of the county. From a county historian’s point of view, these excellent resources also contain demographics, and often the speeches or written statements made by each of the candidates. These give an insight into the matters that were of interest to the voters of the time.
The Poll Books illustrated on this page, along with many others for different counties, are available on CD from Parish Chest, the biggest UK based online family history shop.
The Lincolnshire Poll Book for 1818. This one also contains a map of the county.
Left: Linlithgowshire Claims for Enrolment in the 1839 Election. The “Claims for Enrolment” include lists of names and abode of all people in the whole county who were to be entitled to vote in the 1839 election, plus letters and documents relating to those who were being removed from the previous electoral roles, with reasons for removal, and those being added to the role, again with qualifications for being included. These 36 original documents have never been published, and are not deposited with the county record office.
These unique documents have now all been scanned, and are available on CD from Parish Chest.