Poll books take the form of manuscript booklets compiled by the responsible electoral officer. Like early electoral registers, poll books detail those entitled to vote in a defined area at a given period. However, they date from an earlier age of elections and reflect very different voting practices and values.
Requirement to keep records
A Parliamentary Act of 1696 required the local sheriff to keep a record of county election polls, listing the electors, their qualification to vote and often their occupation. They also record the name of the candidate for whom each elector voted, and this information would have been made publicly available after the election. A further Act of 1711 required that these records then be handed over to the Clerk of the Peace for permanent preservation. This system continued until the Ballot Act of 1872, which effectively removed the need for poll books. It was not until 1843 that a similar system of preservation was introduced for Borough constituency poll books, and many of these were later destroyed.
Who could vote?
For county elections it was a requirement that the voter was male, aged 21 or over, with freehold lands or tenements with an annual net value of 40 shillings or above. Until 1774, they also had to be resident in the same county as their lands. From 1780, payment of land tax on this property also qualified the owner to vote. The qualifications to vote in a borough varied, but the 1832 Act standardised this right, giving it to owners or tenants of property worth £10 or more annually and who had occupied the property for at least a year prior to registering to vote. Voters were also required to live within seven miles of the borough.
What do poll books contain?
In early 18th century poll books, it is often only the name and parish of each voter that is recorded, but later on it is possible to find the occupation and the nature of the qualification to vote noted down as well. The name of the candidate voted for would be added at the time of the election, and poll books were often released in published form. These published versions were then used by election agents, prospective candidates and other private individuals to canvas votes in the future, and many contain annotations regarding certain voters who were considered ‘persuadable’.
Bribery and election fraud
18th and early 19th century elections were chaotic affairs and were very different from those we hold today. Candidates would routinely bribe prospective voters (with money, food or alcohol), threaten electors who did not intend to vote for them and disrupt their opponents’ campaigns in a variety of ways, usually violently. Elections could be won by cheating and both Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stafford were notorious for their under-handed elections.
Poll books offer the modern researcher an insight into these turbulent events, and may provide the social historian with enough material to study patterns of voting and political support. On the wider scale, they give details of local inhabitants – such as occupation and change of circumstances – that may not be recorded elsewhere.
What we hold
A number of surviving poll books are held by the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service, some printed and some as the original manuscript booklets. Below is a brief summary of these holdings.
Lichfield History Access Point
Lichfield (printed sources): 1710, 1714, 1718, 1721, 1755, 1781, 1799
Staffordshire Record Office
Newcastle: 1734-1830 (with gaps)
Stafford: 1835, 1869
North Staffordshire: 1832, 1837
South Staffordshire: 1835, 1837
Lichfield: 1761 – 1837 (with gaps)
Stoke on Trent City Archives
Newcastle under Lyme: 1734-1842 (with gaps)
Stoke on Trent: 1859-1862 (with gaps)
North Staffordshire: 1865
West Staffordshire: 1868
Totmanslow North: 1832
The William Salt Library holds a number of printed poll-books for towns around the county, especially Stafford (1780-1869) and Newcastle under Lyme (1812-1841).