Absent Voters Lists

This article is about absent voters lists and will explain what they are and how to find them. Absent voters lists can be a crucial set of documents when it comes to researching those who fought in the First World War, as they combine addresses with military information. This page is one of a number I have written to help you research soldiers who served in the First World War:

What are Absent Voters Lists?

On 14 December 1918, the United Kingdom held its first general election since December 1910. It was a historic election due to the passing of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which tripled the size of the electorate. All men over the age of 21 (19 if they had, or were currently serving in the armed forces) and women over the age of 30, had the right to vote. However, there was a problem in that there were large numbers of men and a smaller number of women who were serving overseas and therefore had to register in order to vote. Soldiers could register themselves or be registered by a family member. Canvassing was also undertaken, especially when information had not been provided or was found to be incorrect. The Aberdeen Journal reported on 20 June 1918:

In the county districts the inspectors of poor of the different parishes made a house-to-house canvass in cases where the schedules had not been returned, and advised those who wished guidance as to the filling up of the forms.

Despite war ending in November 1918, many soldiers continued to serve overseas, especially in the Germany, India or the Middle East. Fortunately, this meant that absent voters lists were created after the war and you’ll find the period between 1919 and 1921 to be the most useful for researching First World War soldiers. Unfortunately, many of these lists have been destroyed and others are held in local archives and difficult to access. In 1920, the British Army changed its numbering system with unique army numbers replacing regimental numbers. I have a page explaining what army numbers were on my Second World War website.

Why Absent Voters Lists can be Crucial

During the Blitz in 1940, the warehouse storing the service records of those who served in the British Army during the First World War and left prior to January 1921 caught fire. Approximately 60% of these service records were destroyed, along with many other important documents from the period. This loss has meant that for many of those who served during the war, there is no surviving documentation which contains their regimental number along with information which could identify them from another soldier with the same name. For example, if you’re researching a soldier named John Smith, you would have hundreds of possible candidates if you didn’t already know their regimental number. Even with names which aren’t common, you’ll often be left with multiple possible soldiers, especially if you only known vague details regarding their service.

Absent voters lists will record a soldier’s address along with their regimental number allowing you to confirm you have the correct man and usually rule out others even if you don’t find the man you’re after. You will need to know the area they were living at the time and the 1911 Census, birth, marriage and death certificates can help you there. Family knowledge is often key if you’re researching a relative. Also, the 1921 Census will be released shortly.

The second reason that absent voters lists can be crucial is if you are researching a soldier who served in a Corps of the British Army (Royal Engineers, Royal Army Service Corps, Royal Artillery etc.) and no information has survived regarding the exact unit a soldier was serving with. Medals records, which are often the only surviving documents for a soldier’s service usually don’t record the exact unit/s they served with abroad. For example, during the First World War, there were hundreds of field ambulances, mobile medical units of the Royal Army Medical Corps operating on the Western Front alone. The medal index cards and medal rolls for these soldiers will probably just record Royal Army Medical Corps, unless they qualified for the 1914 Star, which doesn’t help you trace their movements. Absent voters lists will often record the exact unit a man was serving in when he registered. However, just because a soldier was serving with a unit when he registered to vote doesn’t mean he started his service with that unit as soldiers frequently moved.

For example, in the Parliamentary County of Norfolk, Southern Division, parish Wymondham list for 1918, 15473 Sergeant Reggie Walter Smith’s address was Wellington Terrace and was serving with the 61st Battalion Machine Gun Corps. No service record survives for Reggie, who is named Reginald on his medal records. None of his medal records give the units of the Machine Gun Corps he served with abroad, so his entry in the absent voter records provides crucial information should you wish to research him. His 1914/15 Star medal roll does show that he landed in France with the 4th Battalion The Rifle Brigade on 27 January 1915.

What Information do Absent Voters Lists Contain?

The information contained in absent voters lists will vary but they will contain some of the following information:

  • Name – Usually in full, sometimes just initials.
  • Qualifying Premises – Where they were living, the number of the street was not usually given.
  • Description of Service, Ship, Regiment, Number, Rank, Rating, &c., or recorded address.

Below are two typical entries in the absent voters lists:

  • Smith, William Tuttle’s Lane 27847 Gnr. 91st Hvy. Batty. R.G.A.
  • Roe, George William Hibernia, Flackwell Heath T36559 Dvr., A.S.C.

The absent voters lists are full of military jargon in the form of unit abbreviations and acronyms. Smith was serving as a Gunner in the 91st Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery and Roe was a Driver in an Army Service Corps unit.

Where can I Find Absent Voters Lists?

Some absent voters lists have been digitized on FindmyPast and Ancestry but not all have. Also, many no longer survive. A handful are available only for free, so it is best to search Google using the county you are looking for, followed by the phrase “absent voters lists”. FindmyPast and Ancestry often have free trials.

The following absent voters lists can be viewed for free online, either in their original form or as transcriptions. The list in by no means complete.

Important Tip

Check to make sure you have the correct constituency as boundaries have changed over the last 100 years.

The Disadvantages of Absent Voters Lists

Unfortunately, there are a number of disadvantages when it comes to the lists:

  • Not all absent voters lists have survived. A large number were destroyed, which leaves large gaps.
  • They are difficult to get hold of unless you join FindmyPast, which doesn’t have a complete set or visit local archives.
  • There were numerous errors when the lists were compiled, which can make searching difficult. To be 100% sure, it is best to trawl through the appropriate list, which can be time-consuming.
  • Some soldiers were missed off completely as the Yorkshire Evening Post and Birmingham Post record below:

The absent voters’ list has caused a good deal of trouble, and neither in Leeds nor elsewhere is it anything like complete… By absent voters is understood, generally, sailors and soldiers on active service. Actually, however, the number of men who have joined the Service from Leeds are known to have numbered nearly 100,000, so that nearly half of those entitled to have their names on the register have been omitted either through their own or their friends’ neglect to supply the necessary particulars. Many hundreds of names are now being sent in weekly by soldiers’ relatives, but they are too late for this year’s register.

Yorkshire Evening Post 28 September 1918

In the compilation of the Absent Voters’ List for the city the officials have had to recanvass at about 8,000 houses, because they had not the particulars, or the particulars were incomplete, and they found it impossible to deal with about 650 cards.

Birmingham Post 04 September 1918.

Despite these problems, the information found in absent voters lists can still hold the key to researching a soldier who served in the First World War.