Since time immaterial, whenever there has been government, local or national, there has been two things: taxes, and elections. And with them, come a huge amount of bureaucracy. You need to know who has to pay taxes, and whether they have paid up, or whether they are entitled to vote.
In modern Britain, every year every household gets sent a voting register form, so any adult over the age of 18 can register to vote in local, national or european elections. Not only does this entitle you to have a say in which politician gets to shaft you, but it means that there is a nice handy list available of every single person, over the age of 18 and registered. So handy, in fact, apparently a lot of councils rather deviously sell these details to marketing firms… But you can have a look at them yourself, they are normally available to view at either the local council offices or the local library.
In my local library, they have the electoral roll for every year going back to 1932. The whole city of Portsmouth is separated by Parliamentary Constituency, then by council ward. Then, within each ward each street, and for each street you will find a list of every house in the street, even then odd, and next to each house number, the people living there who were registered to vote. They’re not indexed at all, so you need to have an idea of what house number, road or area you are looking for. Electoral Registers could even be useful if you wanted to find out the history of a house, for example who was living in it from one year to the next. But if you have no idea where in the city someone was living, you will either have to search through the whole lot – clear a few days in your diary – or try and use something else to help you narrow it down.
Like most sources for family history, the electoral roll is not a source to use on its own, but when you use it in conjunction with the census, certificates or street directories – more of them next week – you can add pieces to the puzzle. The electoral roll does not tell you about ages, relationships, occupations, ownership, or any children under 18. But it is useful because it is produced every year, unlike every 10 years like the census. Using all of these sources it should be too difficult to pinpoint where someone was living and when, down to the nearest year.
In earlier times, back in the 19th Century, the qualifications for being able to vote were more strict. To be able to vote, you had to own property. And be male, of course. If someone did own property, they would be recorded in a Poll Book. These are fascinating, as not only do they record the voters, but also how they voted, so you get an idea of their political leanings too. You can normally find these in the local records office.