About Somerset Electoral Registers 1832-1914
How can I use these datasets?
- While census records provide addresses at ten-year intervals and civil registration records do so for each event, electoral registers are the only records that provide frequent, regular and authoritative information on an ancestor’s property. They can therefore be used to trace changes of address year by year.
- Also, they are the only records for this period which provide direct evidence as to whether an ancestor’s dwelling is rented or owned, and then whether by leasehold or freehold (sometimes even the length of the lease is given).
- In addition, they may give an indication of trade or business premises not apparent from other records, or provide other information about the property, such as the existence of a garden or pasture.
- The geographical organization of the original printed volumes can make finding an individual difficult, not least since you need to be familiar with the electoral geography of Somerset for the relevant year in order to know where a particular town or parish is listed. Even if you have a "home" address for ancestor from other records, he might claim his vote on the basis of some other piece of qualifying property elsewhere in the county.
- Origins’ index to these records overcomes these problems by providing a complete searchable text, which means you can search on any combination of personal name and place both for the individual volumes and for a longer timespan. And even if your ancestors never gave a Somerset home address in other records, this makes it possible to check very quickly whether they had a significant property holding in the county.
What are the Somerset Electoral Registers?
The Reform Act of 1832 introduced a radical reform of the country’s parliamentary constituencies, and, to the benefit of family historians, gave rise to a coherent national system of voter registration, whose records survive.
Local officials in each constituency oversaw the annual compilation of the definitive list of those entitled to vote, which was then published in print - the Register of Electors.
Since the right to vote was conferred by ownership or occupation of property, the registers record not only the names of the voters but details of each man’s property qualification.
These qualifications changed between the start of the registers in 1832 and 1918 (when universal male suffrage made property details irrelevant), but essentially any male who owned or rented property above a certain value was entitled to vote.
What information will I find in the indexes?
- The original printed registers are organized by polling district, and then by parish, with electors listed alphabetically in separate tables for each type of property qualification.
- Each entry gives the full name of the voter and his place of abode, the exact nature of the property held and the location of the property which conferred the right to vote.
- The place of abode will not always be the same as the qualifying property, particularly for the wealthy or those in trade or business. In any part of Somerset, you will find voters whose abode is given as a nearby city, or even further afield. The qualification column may well indicate the ownership of more than one piece of property in the area.
- By the very nature of the franchise, these records list only a proportion of the adult male population, perhaps 15% in 1832, rising to around 60% by 1914. Electoral Registers are likely to be very accurate records: local officials will have been familiar with local street and place names, and the formal process of registration, which was subject to public scrutiny, suggests that the full names of voters will be free of the sort of errors we find in, for example, census records. In fact, a voter whose name was not correctly registered wasn’t entitled to vote.
Where can I go from here?
- Origins also has indexed facsimiles of Somerset & Dorset Notes and Queries, starting in 1890, a journal which describes itself as a "repository for the preservation of facts relating to the present of past history of the district" and which contains many references to individuals with Somerset connections.
- Before 1832, published poll books provide a record of how people voted in elections, though a much smaller proportion of the male population was entitled to vote, and only the parish is indicated, not the property address.
- However, similar evidence of dwelling place for a wider range of households will be found in Land Tax records, which from 1772 to 1832 show both owners and occupiers of houses and land.
- Particularly if you have found an ancestor in one of the earlier electoral registers, you should be able to identify the property on the 1836 Tithe Map for the parish, which is accompanied by a schedule giving owners and occupiers.
- Finally, from an address in the Electoral Register you may be able to trace an ancestor’s home or business back to an earlier period using printed city and county directories.
Where to look for these
The poll books
, the 1836 Tithe Map
, the Land Tax records
and the city and county directories
can be found at the Somerset Heritage Centre
(SHC) but these record types are not yet online there.
Land tax records and tithe maps are unique historical documents, so they will be at the SHC only (unless some local historical society has decided to transcribe and publish them).
Poll books and directories are printed so they may be found in local reference libraries within the county, and major research libraries like the British Library and Society of Genealogists (which has over 30 Somerset directories). The major site for digitised directories, Historical Directories, does not have many Somerset directories.
Some of the above have been published on CD. See Origins Shop for Somerset Books & CDs, or click Related Links on the right of this page.