Absent voters of 1918

Well dear reader you were warned – I might get random for the next couple of months and this is a random but, I think, interesting post. Having researched my local war memorial for the centenary of the Armistice I became fascinated in a village context with the men who fought and returned and who are today largely anonymous except, perhaps, within their own direct family line. The research went into a folder to be sorted out at a later date…which has now arrived.

One of the sources that can grant a snap shot of the men who had left their homes to fight in the Great War is the Absentee Voters’ List. In 1918 there was an election. It was held almost immediately after the war ended on 4th December. The Representation of the People Act was passed by Lloyd George’s Coalition Government to make provision for those who were serving in an official capacity away from their homes – this included the armed services and the merchant navy for example. These voters could either vote by post or by proxy. Lists of the eligible had to be drawn up and voting forms distributed – no mean feat.

There is no central list of absent voters- though the British Library does hold much of the information. The information I found relating to my polling district was held by my local records office. Not all lists of absentee voters are complete and there are errors – not surprising given the number of voters involved. It is also a snapshot of a relatively short period of time. However, it does identify and provide a more substantial insight into the number of people who were serving in some capacity. The full name of the absent voter, their usual place of residence followed by their service number and regiment is provided. Sadly two of the names on my list also feature on the war memorial.

The absentee voters should have filled in the voting forms themselves according to what I’ve read but I do find myself wondering about the logistics of sending forms of eligibility off to the far flung corners of the globe and the chances of them getting back to the correct location given that the Representation of the People Act was granted Royal Assent on 6th Feb 1918 – and then for the correct voting forms to reach the correct destination in late November. I am for instance not sure that the men facing the German counter attack of March 1918 would have necessarily been overly bothered by the thought of filling in their voting application forms or for that matter the chances of forms arriving at the right destination. It seems more likely that individual household supplied the information in the first instance – I shall continue reading to see what else I can find out about the process.

In any event Absentee Voters’ Lists are a very useful resource indeed to local historians and are also a very good example of the fact that even modern mass produced documents give pause for thought in terms of who wrote the material; is the information correct; which bits of the jigsaw does the primary source provide and which pieces might be wrong or missing.

The Representation of the People Act increased the number of people eligible to vote. Men over the age of twenty-one could now vote whether they owned land or not. Many of the men on the list I have would not have been eligible to vote before this point because of their status within society. The act also gave women over the age of thirty and who held property, or whose husbands’ held property with a rateable value of £5.00 or more the right to vote.

It would take another ten years before women were allowed to vote on the same terms as men. The election of 1929 was known as the Flapper Election because of the number of women voting. My grandmother voted for the first time in 1929 having been told by my grandfather prior to going to vote who she should vote for – I really do hope that once she was inside the voting booth that she voted for who she thought was the best candidate irrelevant of what she’d been told by her spouse half an hour previously.