The IHR Library holds a large collection of printed British parliamentary poll books, both originals and photocopies. Poll books can be traced back to an Act of Parliament in 1696 designed to curb electoral fraud and disputed elections. They record the names of voters, who they voted for, and on occasion the voters’ place of residence, occupation and the place of the voters’ qualification if different from their residence. Therefore, poll books can provide a wealth of information across a swathe of historical disciplines. It should be noted, however, that poll books do not survive for every constituency, nor for every election. In addition, some poll books were printed, while others remain in manuscript.
The first known poll book to be printed was for a by-election in the county of Essex in 1694. It is thought that the prurient interest generated by the suicide of the M.P. whose death triggered the election (he hanged himself at the fourth attempt from his four-poster bed with his garter after unsuccessfully trying to choke himself with ‘the rump of a turkey’) caused the printer of the poll book to ‘cash-in’ on the widespread public interest generated. The printed copy of the poll was an unofficial document and for some elections, several copies of the same poll were published, for example: the election held at Boston in 1865.
Poll books remained popular right up until the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, yet even after the act’s introduction, poll books survive for the three university constituencies of Cambridge, Oxford and London. The last known poll book is for Cambridge, taken in 1882 and the IHR holds a copy. Below is an image from this final poll book and an image from an early election in the constituency of the University of Oxford.
The library has been undertaking a project to catalogue and reclassify the IHR’s collection of poll books since late 2011. This project is now complete and as a result, we felt it would be an appropriate time to share some of the highlights that we uncovered while reclassifying these valuable records of British electoral history.
- At the poll taken in Boston, Lincolnshire in 1865 the printers felt it necessary to include an addendum stating that, “we have been obliged to omit some Squibs issued during the Election, on account of their gross indecency and libellous character.”
– Political songs, speeches and declarations are also recorded in some poll books. One fine example portrays an electoral candidate.
The rhyme declares:
‘There’s Taylor with eloquence blazing,
The Tories he’ll make a clear rout of ‘em,
With Trousers so tight it’s amazing,
How he ever gets into or out of ‘em!’
Another electioneering song from an election in 1813 notes:
‘He sends us Gowland as his substitute
And do they think that he can gain a vote?
From freeborn men by means like these, I swear
I’d almost rather be condemned to bear
The thoughts of drinking water all my days
Than thus I’d swerve from independent ways.’
In addition, the song Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, recorded during an election campaign in Lincolnshire in 1868, highlights the nature of electioneering and canvassing at this time.
The poll book records the Liberal candidate commenting:
“The Conservative Cock is moulting,
Which makes him look so low;
The taps are stopp’d, his throat’s so dry,
He cannot even crow.”
In reply, the Conservative candidate remarks:
‘The Liberal Cock has lost his spurs,
He has nothing to defend him;
And if he ventures in the wars,
The Conservative Cock will end him.”
- Several poll books were produced hurriedly to cope with public demand. Thus, many polls contain errata asking readers to overlook any mistakes. A poll for the election in Durham in 1813 states: ‘In the course of the work, the reader will in places observe a few typographical errors; they are, however, so obvious, we have thought a particular statement unnecessary, since the error takes not from the grammatical sense, and is generally confined to the misplacing a single letter. In a work of this heterogeneous kind, we hope such mistakes will be candidly overlooked, or generously forgiven.’
The IHR Library staff adopt a similar approach and hope that any mistakes during cataloguing are also candidly overlooked or generously forgiven.
The Library’s collection of poll books are located in the IHR’s onsite store but they can be consulted via request through email or in person. Full details can be found here: http://www.history.ac.uk/library/collections/collection-locations
A guide to the Library’s collection of poll books can be consulted here: http://www.history.ac.uk/library/collections/pollbooks