BRIEF SUMMARY OF THE FRANCHISE IN MODERN ENGLISH HISTORY



NOTE: This page is written as a guide for family history researchers, often from overseas, who frequently enquire about electoral registers and poll books. It is not meant for historians.

REFORM ACT OF 1832
This began the process of modern electoral reform. Before this there were many abuses and only a small number of people (all males) were able to vote. There were two types of constituency — the borough, and the county (also the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge). Most English counties and boroughs returned two members. Oxford and Cambridge universities had 2 members each. In very simple terms a 'borough' is a word for a town as distinct from a village or hamlet or city. My Chambers Dictionary says it is 'a town with a corporation and special privileges granted by royal charter; a town that sends representatives to parliament" and then goes on to expand. But that charter might date back to early period in Britain's history and the fortunes of towns change. So by the early nineteenth century some boroughs had ceased to be 'towns' and quite a few expanding towns were not boroughs. The Act abolished 56 'rotten', 'pocket' and 'burgage' boroughs which had a population under 2000. The first term has no precise definition but generally referred to boroughs where election was secured by venal means such as outright bribery. Often the term is extended to include the pocket boroughs where a 'patron' was able to dispose of the seat to a man of his choosing in election after election. And burgage boroughs were those in which the electorate was restricted to (usually a very few) men who held land by 'burgage' tenure. The prime example being Old Sarum with one elector. These also come under the 'rotten' label (a term first applied by Pitt). And also thanks to the Industrial Revolution a situation had arisen whereby some small, but historic, boroughs such as Clitheroe were sending two members to Parliament whilst some towns which had grown much bigger in (then) recent times were unrepresented (eg. Manchester, Birmingham). The Act gave representation to some of these towns. The vote was given to (male) owners of property aged over 21. One estimate is that about 1 in 7 were entitled to vote but in the absence of electoral registers it is hard to be precise. Another source gives a rise in the electorate from 400,000 just before the Act to 650,000 just after it — an increase of about 60% People that had several properties in different constituencies could vote in each of them — so-called plural voting (residence was not required). Prior to the act many boroughs had their own customs and rules and these were mostly standardized but 'freeman boroughs' were left alone. These were boroughs in which only people who had the 'freedom of the borough' were allowed to vote.

In the counties the vote had previously been restricted to freeholders of land worth 40 shillings annually (eg. if rented out: this was the 'forty-shilling freeholder') but was now given to some others such as owners of copyhold land worth £10, leaseholders of land valued £10 pa (long term leases) or£50 (medium term leases and tenants-at-will paying this amount in annual rent.

For family history researchers electoral registers started at this time and generally give not only names of voters but also their property qualifications. Poll books are different in that they give the names of people who actually voted and who they voted for.

REFORM ACT 1867
This Act provided for:-
  • 9 new boroughs enfranchised
  • County franchise to occupiers of property rated £12 pa (per annum) or land valued at £5 pa.
  • Borough franchise to all householders paying rates and tenants paying a £10 pa rental if resident for more than 12 months.
  • The University of London gained an MP
It is estimated that about a third of adult males were now enfranchised. In 1872 another Act introduced the secret ballot so the election of 1868 was the last for which poll books in the true sense are available.

REFORM ACT 1884
This brought the counties into line with the boroughs by including all occupiers and lodgers paying a £12 pa rental subject still to 12 months residence.
Estimated that now 2 in 5 of adult males could vote.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT ACT 1888
Created County Councils elected by ratepayers.

REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT 1918
Gave vote to all males over 21 and to women over 30 who were ratepayers or wives of ratepayers. Women now accounted for about 40% of the electorate. The electoral register system developed into its modern form and also no longer gave property qualifications. Because of the greatly increased numbers it is almost impossible to search without an address. (After the 1832 Act registration had been under the auspices of the Overseers of the Poor)

REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT 1928
Gave vote to all women over 21

REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT 1948
Abolished the University vote, plural voting, and the right to vote in both ones business address and residential address

PEOPLE NOT ALLOWED TO VOTE
Some categories have always been disenfranchised. Tom Wood in an article in Family Tree Magazine (December 1996) mentions:
  • lunatics
  • criminals serving a prison sentence
  • peers of the realm
  • those in receipt of public alms
  • non-naturalised aliens
  • WW1 conscientious objectors in 1918/1923 elections
  • policemen (until 1887)
  • postmasters (until 1918)
  • customs and excisemen (until 1918)

Last update 20/04/2007