Discover your British military ancestor from the Absent Voters Lists from 1918 until 1921. This valuable source contains the names of thousands of service men, women serving with the auxiliary forces, merchant seamen, diplomats and others working in occupations recognised as supporting the war effort. They will be of interest to both military historians and genealogists. Search the records by rank, regiment or service number. These absent voters lists are available from the British Library for the first time online.
Each record includes an image of the original record and a short transcription describing the document. The amount of information found in each entry can vary, but most will include the following:
Qualifying premises – the column will only list a house number when the register is segregated into streets by street or full address when listed by parish
Description of service
Ship, regiment, number, rank, rating, or recorded address
This is the small text box on the left-hand side of the screen. It will provide you with the following information:
Season – after 1919, registers were printed twice a year, either spring or autumn
Register type – explains whether the document is a parliamentary borough or county register
Polling district or place – This will include polling districts or wards. Civil parishes are not indexed and will need to be searched by keyword.
Archive and British Library shelfmark
Searching PDFs is a different experience to searching other indexed records. Use our Search Tips provided below as a guide.
The absent voters’ lists are registers of eligible voters who were absent from their homes. The lists are of particular importance for those whose ancestors fought during the First World War. After Parliament passed the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which radically reformed the electorate in Great Britain and Ireland, men between the ages of 19 and 20 who were serving in the armed forces were given the right to vote and could register as absent voters for the first time. Absent voters lists also contain the names of anyone whose work was recognised by the Admiralty, Army Council or Air Council, such as merchant seamen, fisherman and those working for the Red Cross. The registers also include the names of many women over the age of 30 who were serving overseas with the Women’s Auxiliary Army and other women’s services that were supporting the war effort.
Applications for an absent vote were to be submitted by August 1918 for the autumn and by February 1919 for the spring. The registers were printed twice a year. The names of absent voters were sent to the Adjutant General’s Department of the War Office. The War Office then arranged to send voting cards to men in the UK and ballot papers to those in France. Some were left out because of the hurried process and some details given may be inaccurate.
Lists were completed by August 1918 and then published that October. Subsequently, the lists may include names of men who were killed, missing or taken prisoner in the period of time between the compiling of lists and the publication of the register. After an election, the counting of votes was delayed by up to eight days to ensure the receipt of the absent votes. This practice occurred during the First World War and for twelve months after.
Between 1918 and 1939, absent voters were listed separately, often in foolscap typescript lists rather than printed registers. For a few years these contained additional information, such as a serviceman’s rank, unit and number. While today this is a boon to researchers, it was irrelevant for electoral purposes and the practice was soon dropped.
As the British electorate increased and more people were given the right to vote in both parliamentary and local elections, the registers began to use codes to decipher an individual’s basis for voting qualification.
In registers from about 1850 onwards, the word ‘successive’ can appear next to a person’s residence. This means that the individual moved within the last 12 months and the qualification to vote carried over to the new home.
Registers after 1918 included the following codes:
A dash ( – ) – Person could not vote in the election
R – Residence qualification
BP – Business premises qualification
O – Occupational qualification
HO – Qualification through husband's occupation
NM – Naval or military voter
Registers after 1928 include two codes next to an electorate’s name. The first code is a qualification to vote in parliamentary elections. The second code is the voter’s qualification to vote in local elections.
R – Residence qualification (man)
Rw – Residence qualification (woman)
B – Business premises qualification (man)
Bw – Business premises qualification (woman)
O – Occupational qualification (man)
Ow – Occupational qualification (woman)
D – Qualification through wife's occupation
Dw – Qualification through husband's occupation
NM – Naval or military voter
Attached to names, the following extra codes can sometimes be seen:
J – Eligible to serve as juror
SJ – Eligible to serve as special juror
a – Absent voter
Searching a PDF is a different experience to searching transcribed records. To help you find your ancestor, we have put together search tips to guide you. Remember that you are searching records that have been digitally scanned and then converted to machine-encoded text using Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This process is not perfect and the machine may have misread characters, especially in personal names, which causes searches to fail. Try alternative approaches such as repeating the search in a different year or scanning all the voters in a civil parish. To search for rank, regiment or service number use the keyword field.
Searching for names
The search returns results based on proximity (how close together the words are located), thus a search for Henry Smith will also bring back William Henry Smith or a search for John Smith may return John Prickett on Smith Street.
The name variant search check box will not work with a PDF search. Instead, try searching for your ancestor using multiple spellings of their name. For example, your Great Aunt Katherine may have spelt her name as Catherine or possibly the Brook family used to have an ‘e’ on the end and spelt the name as Brooke.
Use the keyword field to do a wildcard search. By inserting an asterisk on either side of the word, it will search for various spellings of that word. For example, ()Geo() will return Gregory and George.
In some registers, the first name was abbreviated. If you cannot find your ancestor by their first name, try an abbreviated spelling. For example, the name William could be listed as W or Wm.
In this search experience, you are searching through the original text as it was recorded, therefore, you may come across local variants or accidental misspellings, such as, the use of sewerage farm in Cambridgeshire Western Division instead of the normal sewage farm.
Constituencies have changed throughout the century as voting laws developed and the franchise was extended. To find your ancestor, search through multiple constituencies or places. For more help with the changing nature of constituencies over the years, refer to the British Library’s Parliamentary Constituencies and their Registers since 1832, which is available in the Useful Links and Resources.
Many of the registers will have a street index or directory at the beginning of the document. You can either get to the beginning by continuously clicking the previous button on the PDF screen or you can start a new search for the constituency and year and then order the results by image number. By doing so, the top image would be the first page and you could then click through the images from the beginning.