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 a soldier who fought in the First World War, as they combine both biographical and military information. This article is one of a number I have written to help you research a soldier who served in the First World War. To view more guides click on the link below:
I also offer a First World War Soldier Research Service.
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. The problem was the 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 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 WW1 soldiers.
Why Absent Voters Lists can be Crucial
With the loss of the vast majority of First World War service files, there is often no surviving document which contains a soldier’s regimental number along with biographical information. If you don’t know their regimental number and only know vague details regarding their service history, you will likely have multiple possible soldiers. Absent Voters Lists can help you to find the correct soldier as long as you know where they were living at the time (the 1911 census and family knowledge is usually key).
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, Army Service Corps etc.) and no information has survived regarding the exact unit a soldier was serving with. Absent voters lists will often record the exact unit a man was serving 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.
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 is 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. To help you decipher the lists I’ve written a separate article on First World War Abbreviations and Acronyms.
Where can I Find Absent Voters Lists?
I would recommend viewing the absent voters lists on FindmyPast, a subscription-based website, as the lists are scattered all over the country. However, a handful are available to view online for free, so it is best to search Google using the county you are looking for, followed by the phrase “absent voters lists”. Clicking on the banner below will take you to FindmyPast which usually offers a free 14 day trial.
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.
- There were numerous errors when the absent voters 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.