Parliamentary Elections - A time line

The road universal suffrage in the UK was long and complicated so this page is intened to provide
family historians with a brief overview of Parliamentary voting rights in England.
For a fuller and authorative account please see The History of the Parliamentary Franchise,
a House of Commons Briefing paper (RP13-14) by Neil Johnston.

Outside a Polling Station in East Street Epsom 1906.
Outside a Polling Station in East Street Epsom 1906
Image Source Bourne Hall Museum

Date/Period Comment
Middle ages (5th to the 15th century) Local sheriffs were given the power to appoint members of Parliament to represent their areas.

County boundaries were established as far back as the 8th century.
Two members per county in England and one per county in Wales.
County members were intended to represent the interests of landowners.
County boundaries largely remained constant until 1832.
Centres of population originally chosen by the local sheriff.
Two members per borough, although a few only had one.
Borough members were intended to represent the interests of traders and merchants.

New boroughs were regularly created by the reigning monarch only to have the change reversed by his successor.
King John signs the Magna Carta.
King John signs the Magna Carta.
Image source: A Chronicle of England

King John agreed to Magna Carta which stated the right of the barons to consult with and advise the king in his Great Council.
1236 Earliest use of the term Parliament, referring to the Great Council.
1254 Sheriffs were instructed to send elected representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) to consult with the King on taxation.
1258 At a Parliament at Oxford, the nobles drafted the "Provisions of Oxford" which called for regular Parliaments with representatives from the counties.
1265 Simon de Montfort, in rebellion against Henry III, summoned a Parliament which included for the first time representatives of both the counties and boroughs.
1295 Model Parliament was made up of nobles and bishops, and two representatives for each county and for each borough - the model for future Parliaments.
1327 From this date representatives of the counties (knights of the shire) and of the boroughs (burgesses) were always summoned together to Parliament.
1332 Knights of the shire and burgesses met together and were called the Commons.
1341 The Commons met separately from the Upper House for the first time.
1362 A statute established that Parliament must approve all taxation.
1399 Parliament deposed Richard II and Henry IV's reign started.
1432 Owners of property worth over 40 shillings (2) were given the right to vote in county elections.

The 40 shilling qualification was never adjusted for inflation so that over time more people qualified for the vote.

Women were never expressly excluded from the vote but since on marriage all their property becomes that of their husband, most no longer qualified. Those that did, by convention did not vote.

People who met the property qualification in more than one county were entitled to a vote in each county - multiple voting.
1535 Legislation provides for Welsh representatives in the House of Commons.
1640s During the Commonwealth, a number of reforms were proposed by Cromwell, of which a few were implemented.
All the new arrangements were reversed when the monarchy was restored.
1707 Acts of Union passed in the Parliaments of England and Scotland unite the two countries. Scotland allocated 45 seats in the House of Commons.
1729 Bribery Act passed to address corruption in elections.
1801 Act of Union joins Ireland and Great Britain. Ireland allocated 100 seats in the House of Commons.
1760s-1820s During this period there was considerable agitation for reform all of which came to nothing. The areas of particular concern were:-
A Cartoon depicting an advert for a Rotten Borough.
A Cartoon depicting an advert for a Rotten Borough.

Dealing with the corruption in what came to be known as 'the rotten boroughs'.
  1. Over time populations had moved, so that once thriving boroughs with a substantial population had become virtually deserted but still retained their voting rights. In Gatton, near Reigate, for example, there was at times only one burgess to elect two MPs. With voting still being in public it was easy for local landowners to make sure that the 'right' person was elected. The end result was that people like the Duke of Norfolk who was able to control eleven boroughs.
  2. Extending the franchise to the newly emerging industrial towns many of which had no votes at all.
  3. Ending multiple voting.
  4. Introducing the secret ballot.
  5. Extending the franchise, although women did not feature highly in this argument.
1830 On the death of George IV, in June 1830, a general election was held that returned a Tory government led by the Duke of Wellington. Although the opposition was strong enough to force the Tories into formulating a reform bill, the strong opposition of the Duke and the divisions within his party resulted in the bill being scrapped. The government collapsed and another general election had to be held. A Whig government under Lord Grey was elected.
1831 First Reform Bill.
This bill maded it as far as the committee stages where Isaac Gascoyne objected to the proposed reduction of seats in the House of Commons. His amendment was accepted against the will of the government, effectively ending the bill's life. Parliament was dissolved and another general election held to establish the will of the people. The Whigs won an overwhelming majority thus confirming the appetite of the people for reform.
1832 Reform Act 1832 - also known as the Great Reform Act.
The main thrust of the Act was in dealing with constituency reforms. Constituency boundaries were altered to make them more equal sizes. Qualifying rules were standardised and voting rights were extended to the new industrial towns. The franchise was also extended to male owners and tenants of larger properties which meant that 1 in 7 men now had the vote. The Act expressly mentioned males only, thus excluding women.
UK Population 1830s - 16,539,000 Estimated
Electorate 1832 - 812,938

1838 to 1867 The Chartist Movement.
A Chartist Riot.
A Chartist Riot.
Image source: True Stories of the Reign of Queen Victoria by Cornelius Brown.

Chartism was a national working-class movement for political reform in Britain which took its name from the People's Charter of 1838.
The People's Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:
  1. A vote for every man (earlier, every person but this was dropped due to middle-class pressure) twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
  2. The secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for Members of Parliament in order to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice.
  4. Payment of Members, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation.
  5. Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones.
  6. Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in each twelve-month period.
1867 Male suffrage was extended by extending the property requirements to urban areas.
UK Cenus Population 1861 - 28,917,000
Electorate 1865 - 1,350,404
Electorate 1868 - 2,484,713

1872 Ballot Act 1872.
Introduce the secret ballot for parliamentary and local elections.
UK Cenus Population 1871 - 31,484,700
Electorate 1874 - 2,753,142

1884 Representation of the People Act 1884
The franchise for men was widened still further and stopped the practise of subdividing property to give people extra votes but did nothing to stop people having votes in more than one constituency. This act also introduced the system of one member per constituency.
UK Cenus Population 1881 - 34,934,500
Electorate 1880 - 3,040,050
Electorate 1885 - 5,708,030

Mid to Late 1800s and Early 1900s. Womens Sufferage Campaign - See Votes for Women box below.
Mrs Pankhurst leaving Epsom Magistrates Court accompanied by James Murray, a former MP
Mrs Pankhurst leaving Epsom Magistrates' Court, accompanied by James Murray, a former MP.

Links to some of our other pages:
1893 New Zealand became the first country in the world to allow women to vote.
1918 Representation of the People Act 1918.
All men over the age of 21 were given the vote in the constituency where they lived.
For the first time women over 30 were officially given the vote but property restrictions still applied unless the women was married. Approximately 40% of women acquired the vote.

Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918.
This act allowed women to become MPs.
UK Cenus Population 1911 - 42,082,000
Electorate 1910 - 7,709,981 (December Election)
Electorate 1918 - 21,392,322

Nancy Astor, the first women to take her seat in Parliament.
Nancy Astor, the first women to take her seat in Parliament.
Image source: Library of Congress

Nancy Astor became the first women to take her seat in Parliament. (The first woman to be elected to the House of Commons was Constance Georgine Markievicz (Countess Markieviecz) an Irish Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politician on 28 December 1918 but she did not take her seat.)
1920 Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Irish Free State Agreement Act 1922 created the Irish Free State so reducing the number of seats for Irish constituencies at Westminster from 105 to 13 constituencies in Northern Ireland.
UK Cenus Population 1911 - 42,082,000
Electorate 1922 - 20,874,456

1928 Representation of the People Act 1928.
The voting age for women was reduced to 21 so that all men and women were now treated equally.
UK Cenus Population 1921 - 44,027,000
Electorate 1924 - 21,730,988
Electorate 1929 - 28,854,748

1948 Representation of the People Act 1948.
Plural voting finally stopped.
UK Cenus Population 1931 - 46,038,000
Electorate 1945 - 33,240,391
Electorate 1950 - 34,412,255

1969 Representation of the People Act 1969.
The voting age was reduced to 18 for everybody.
UK Cenus Population 1961 - 52,807,000
Electorate 1966 - 35,957,245
Electorate 1970 - 39,342,013

2008 Voting Age (Reduction) Bill - a Private Members' Bill - to reduce voting age to 16 and over. Bill does NOT become law.

Votes for Women

A Suffragette being force fed, in a contemporary poster
A Suffragette being force fed, in a contemporary poster

Women were not originally excluded from voting in parliamentary elections but since on marriage all their property becomes that of their husband, most no longer qualified. Those that did still qualify, by convention did not vote. This did not stop them from getting involved in politics. It became quite common for women in the upper echelons of society to give elaborate parties for their political friends, as a result of which many of them actually had a considerable influence on events without having the vote.

In 1817, Jeremy Bentham seems to have made the first formal move towards extending the franchise to women. Although his arguments did seem to find support with some of his male colleagues, on the whole, he seems to have sparked off more of a backlash. As a result the 1832 Reform Act expressly refers to 'male persons' thus excluding women.

As women became more educated they began to take more of an interest in politics, but the real agitation for the right to vote came at the end of the 19th century with the beginning of the Suffragette movement. Although some working class women were involved in the movement, it was on the whole, confined to the upper classes. Presumably the working women had other things to worry about!

(Note: The suffragists believed in peaceful campaigning, whereas the suffragettes believed in direct action.)

The outbreak of war in 1914 seems to have led to something of an understanding between the suffragettes and government in that the women transferred their activities from civil disobedience to helping in the war effort in return for the prospect of gaining the vote after the war was over. They had to wait till 1918 for some women to get the vote and a further 10 years for equality with their male colleagues.

Electoral Registers

Electoral Registers have been compiled since the 1832 Reform Act which introduced a property qualification. No registers were produced during the war years :- 1916, 1917,1940, 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1944.

The current Electoral Register for our area is ONLY available for inspection at Epsom Town Hall. Earlier registers, from about 1950 till last year, may be seen at the History Centre in Ewell Library but please note: the law bans the copying, scanning, and photographing of registers under 11 years old. Some, but not all, earlier registers (i.e. before 1950) are held by the History Centre on microfilm/microfiche. Some of the family history websites (such as Ancestry and Find My Past) have some old registers online.

Old electoral Registers occasionally show codes indicating how a person qualified for entry on the register. Here are the most common ones:

aAbsent voter
BBusiness premises qualification - Male (in use from 1928)
BPBusiness premises qualification
(Occasionally Business Premises Register)
BwBusiness premises qualification - Woman (in use from 1928)
CICivilian residence register
DQualification through wife's occupation (in use from 1928)
DwQualification through husband's occupation (in use from 1928)
HOQualification through Husbands Occupation
JEligible to serve as juror
NMNaval or Military Voter
OPre 1928 Occupation of Property qualification
From 1928 refers to a Occupation - Male
OwFrom 1928 refers to a Occupation - Woman
RResidence qualification (From 1928 refers to a Male Voter)
RRRatepayers register
RwResidence qualification Woman (in use from 1928)
SEService register
SJEligible to serve as special juror

Joyce Witham © May, 2017