This blog is the seventh in a continuing series of posts written by members of the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society.  In this blog, we turn our attention to Electoral Registers  specifically trying to trace our female ancestors.  Can we use these register’s to find women prior to the Representation of the People Act 1918?  How do you search the Electoral Register?

There are many ways in which we can continue to draw and add to the profile of our female ancestors.  After 1918, and the enfranchisement of women over 30 (who met the minimum property qualifications), we can now start to consider the use of Electoral Registers in order to better place our female ancestors.

First let’s look at the interesting story of  Lily Maxwell, who become the first women to a vote in a Parliamentary election.

Lily Maxwell

Lily Maxwell, was born in Scotland about 1802 and can be found living in Manchester on the 1861 Census.  In 1867, she was known to own a shop in the Chorlton upon Medlock district of Manchester, and as such was a local rate payer.  And, although women weren’t allowed to vote at the time, all men who were ratepayers could. Somehow, Lily’s name mistakenly appeared on the registered list of voters though no one knows how this may have occurred.

Lily was actually unaware that her name had been placed onto the Electoral Register, and this was only brought to her attention by Lydia Becker the prominent leader of  the Manchester Branch of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage.  Mrs Becker, had only become aware of this situation from member’s of Liberal MP Justin Bright’s election team, who were canvassing support in an upcoming by-election.  As Bright was an early supporter of Women’s Suffrage his election team were most pleased to be able to notify Lydia Becker of this unusual situation.

Mrs Becker, along with another woman were then able to support Lily Maxwell as she presented herself at Chorlton Town Hall in order to cast her vote.  No doubt a momentous occasion, and cheers were heard as she entered and departed the Town Hall.  The returning officer had no choice but to accept her vote as her name legally appeared on his register, however,  within a year any loopholes in the rate books were blocked by law.

MLFHS July 18 blog

Lily Maxwell the was the first woman to vote in Britain in 1867 after the Great Reform Act of 1832.  From the British Newspaper Archive Collection – The Oxford Times, 7 Dec 1867

What are Electoral Registers

The Electoral registers are lists of voters who are able to vote in parliamentary and local government elections. These registers are arranged by constituency and then divided into polling districts. The 1918 Representation of the People Act enforced the practice of listing voters by street and then house number. Before this, some registers may be found to list voters’ names in alphabetical order within each polling district. Prior to 1918, electoral registers provide details of the voter’s residential address, the qualification entitling him to vote and the nature and location of the qualifying property, and also details of properties which the voter owned but which were rented out to tenants.

As voting qualifications became less restrictive fewer details were identified on the electoral registers. However, it must be stressed again, that these registers are not arranged alphabetically by name, and therefore you will need know an address or a precise local area in order to use them. They never show birth details or details of children under the age of 18.  After 1945, only the voter’s name and address was included.

How does the Electoral Register work?

Your first step when using the electoral registers should be to identify the correct constituency of the area and period in which you are interested.  The arrangement of registers is then by Poll district and then Ward, followed by street/road and then house number.

Things to be aware of when using the Electoral Register

  • The Electoral registers were published annually since 1832 however, there are a few exceptions were you will not find any registers.
  • Registration was suspended during both World Wars
  • No registers exist from 1916-1917 (1915-1917 in Scotland)
  • No registers exist from 1940-1944
  • From 1919-1926 there were two registers called Spring and Autumn.
  • There were two registers each in 1945 and 1946
  • Finding the correct constituency that will cover a particular street or area of a large town might be complicated by boundary changes which occurred over many years.

You may find some Electoral Registers are now available online via pay per view sites like Ancestry and findmypast.  However,  the areas and date ranges available are limited, so do remember to check this information carefully.

Place your Female Ancestor in time

Using the Electoral Register to physically place your ancestor at an address is useful  in order to locate her between the census years and thus provide a more accurate picture of her life.

Finding her on the Electoral Register might also provide a better insight into her other aspects of her life for example:

  • Did she actually register to vote?
  • Is this a clue to how civic minded was she?
  • Was she ineligible to vote? For example a foreign national?
  • Is your female ancestor on the Municipal Electoral Register from 1869? Remember, your female ancestors were allowed to vote in local municipal elections after the passing of the Municipal Franchise Act in 1869. This act extended the municipal vote to women ratepayers on the same terms as men and a woman’s name may appear after 1870 if she owned or occupied  a shop or business, or owned a home in her own name.
  • Look at her neighbours and other tenants in her building or road. Perhaps they are relatives or grown children?

Useful websites:

MLFHS Electoral Register Resource Guide:  http://www.mlfhs.org.uk/guides/researching_electoral_registers.pdf

Findmypast have a really good description of their electoral registers:  https://search.findmypast.co.uk/search-world-records/england-and-wales-electoral-registers-1832-1932

https://victoriancommons.wordpress.com/2017/11/26/a-woman-actually-voted-lily-maxwell-and-the-manchester-by-election-of-november-1867

https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/lily-maxwell-the-first-woman-to-vote

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