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Guides to Our Sources

Electoral Registers

Sources in the Devon Record Office, Exeter

Historical Background

Registers of parliamentary voters first began to be systematically kept as a result of the REFORM ACT of 1832, before which constituencies were unequal and electoral qualifications varied from district to district.  Some areas of the country were entirely unrepresented in Parliament, whereas ancient boroughs returned two Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, even those that had dwindled in size and importance (the notorious 'rotten boroughs').  The grouping of boroughs gave a preponderance of representatives to the south and east of the country, at the expense of the new industrial towns of the midlands and the north, and the boroughs returned approximately three times as many Members of Parliament as the counties.  Most people recognised that reform of Parliament was of paramount importance, since much-needed reforms in other administrative institutions such as the church, the universities and the Law Courts were unlikely to come about until its inception.  The electoral system as it stood gave the landed aristocracy an unacceptable hold over the House of Commons, which needed a wider basis for its authority.  The obvious remedy lay in an extension of the franchise and the redistribution of seats.

The REFORM ACT of 1832

The Reform Act of 1832 created a uniform franchise in the boroughs, consisting of owners and occupiers of property worth £10 in annual value. Franchise in the counties was given to £10 copyholders and £50 leaseholders, while the long-standing voting rights of 40 shilling freeholders were upheld. This added about 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000 in England and Wales. Prior to the Act, Devon had returned 26 Members of Parliament - two county Members, two for the city and county of Exeter and two each for the boroughs of Ashburton, Barnstaple, Beer Alston, Dartmouth, Honiton, Okehampton, Plymouth, Plympton, Tavistock, Tiverton and Totnes. The Reform Act cut the number of Members of Parliament to 22, and split the county into two divisions - North and South - each returning two M.P.s.  The boroughs of Beer Alston, Okehampton and Plympton were disenfranchised, Ashburton and Dartmouth lost one Member of Parliament, and two Members were given to the new borough of Devonport.

The REFORM ACT of 1867

The Reform Act of 1867 extended the franchise further to householders of property rated at £5 or more in the boroughs and £12 or more in the counties, adding about 1 million voters.  The Act reduced the number of Devon Members of Parliament to 15, and created a new Eastern Division returning two M.P.s.  The boroughs of Ashburton, Dartmouth, Honiton and Totnes were disenfranchised, and the borough of Tavistock lost one Member of Parliament.

The FRANCHISE ACT of l884

The Franchise Act of 1884 established a uniform £5 voting qualification for both borough and county constituencies, thus raising the U.K. electorate from about 3 million to 5 million.  Large boroughs continued to return two Members of Parliament while the rest of the country was divided into single-member constituencies.  The number of Devon Members of Parliament was reduced to 11, and eight new divisions were created to replace the former three.  These were Ashburton, Barnstaple, Honiton, South Molton, Tavistock, Tiverton, Torquay and Totnes, each returning one M.P.  The boroughs of Barnstaple, Tavistock and Tiverton were disenfranchised, and Exeter, Plymouth and Devonport each returned one M.P.

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The REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT of 1918

The Representation of the People Act of 1918 extended the householder franchise of 1884, which, though hailed at the time as democratic, gave the vote to only three out of every five adult males, and no women.  A simple six month residency qualification was introduced for men, and votes were given to women over thirty on the old occupancy basis. This Act added more voters to the register than all its predecessors put together.  There were now l3 million men and 8.5 million women eligible to vote.  A redistribution of seats aimed at creating uniform constituencies, each of about 70,000 voters and each returning one M.P. A common franchise was established for both parliamentary and local elections.  The number of Devon Members of Parliament was maintained; the Ashburton Division was abolished and the three Plymouth districts of Devonport, Drake and Sutton were given one M.P. each.

REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT OF 1928

The process of democracy was completed with the REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE ACT of 1928, which lowered the voting age for women to 21, with the same six month residency qualification as for men. This added about 5 million voters to the register.

Description of Records   Before 1832 there were no comprehensive lists of voters; the electorate was small in most boroughs, while in the counties most voters could prove their qualification by producing receipts for payment of land tax (pursuant to an Act of 1780, the payment of land tax was confirmed as a voting qualification, and duplicate assessments were deposited with the Clerk of the Peace for the purpose of electoral registration).  The increased franchise made a list necessary, and the duty of compilation was given to the overseers of the poor.  Annual lists of eligible voters were to be deposited with the Clerk of the Peace, who produced printed registers from them.

1832-1914   One printed volume was produced annually for each division, arranged in alphabetical order of polling district, and of parish within each district.  An index at the front gives the number of voters in each parish, in each district, and the total number in the division.  The register of voters is arranged in alphabetical order of surname within each parish, although from 1885 towns are arranged in alphabetical street order.  There are 5 columns: electoral number, full name, residence, nature of qualification, name of property (may only give street or general area).

1918-1939   There are now 4 columns: electoral number, franchise qualification for (a) parliamentary and (b) local government elections, name, address.

1945 onwards   Unbound printed sheets arranged by constituency and in alphabetical order of parish within the constituency.  There are two columns: electoral number and name and address.

Boroughs are included within the divisional lists, but there are separate registers for the City and County of Exeter from 1843.  Registers were not produced during the two World Wars.

Research Use   Parliamentary history, land ownership and occupation, house history, family history, demography, etc.

Records held by Devon Record Office.   Electoral registers for all divisions 1832 to date, although coverage is not comprehensive after 1945.  Some early registers do not survive, but the gaps are filled by overseers' lists (1833-35, 1837, 1838 South, 1840 North).  Other electoral records include LAND TAX ASSESSMENTS, 1780-1832, POLL BOOKS, 1816-1830 (QS/51) and REGISTERS OF ANNUITY, 1810-1856 (QS/48-49).  See also D.R.O. subject card index for material relating to elections.

Records held elsewhere.   The Westcountry Studies Library, Castle Street, Exeter holds a selection of electoral registers for the following areas: Devon (bound registers which theoretically cover the whole county, but from which many larger towns are missing) (1951, 1959, 1961, 1963-1972), Exeter (1932-1939, 1945-1991, 1993-2001), East and Mid Devon (1973-2001), South Hams (1974-2001), Teignbridge (1974-2002). The British Library possesses copies of most registers from 1832 to date and local libraries may hold copies of later registers.

Select Bibliography.   Robert Ensor, England 1870-1914 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), Llewellyn Woodward, The Age of Reform 1815-1870 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962).