Gem From The Archives: Barnsley’s First Burgess Roll

Paul Stebbing, BMBC’s Archives and Local Studies Officer examines a unique document relating to 19th century elections in Barnsley


Elections have been part of British life for generations. The wealth of records they have left behind, particularly the lists of people who were entitled to vote, can be a useful source for social, local and family history research. They fall into two main categories: poll books, which were produced from the late 1600s to 1872, and electoral registers which generally commenced in 1832. Poll books were produced by different publishers so the layout and contents can vary. At the very least they provide lists of those who voted in each locality and which candidate they voted for. Having to declare your vote in public was clearly a system open to abuse, with landlords being able to stipulate who their tenants voted for. It was a system that was finally abolished with the advent of the secret ballot in 1872.

The text reads: The Burgess Roll of the Borough of Barnsley in the West Riding of the County of York, August 1869
Barnsley’s first Burgess Roll, dated August 1869

Electoral registers (or Burgess Rolls) record every adult who was eligible to vote, together with their address, and details (in the early days) of what qualified them to vote. They do not record the candidate who individual voters voted for. It is important to remember that until the 20th century there was no universal suffrage – whether you could vote depended on property ownership and qualifications. Therefore, many researchers, particular those with Agricultural Labourers in their family tree, are unable to find their ancestors in 19th century electoral registers. However, in 1918 the vote was extended to all men over 21 and women over 30 who were householders or wives of householders. Ten years later, in 1928, it was extended to include every homeowner or resident over the age of 21 (97% of the adult population). Finally, in 1969 the voting age was lowered to 18, which it remains at to this day. So as you progress through the 20th century, electoral registers become more and more useful as an historical source, as the electorate widens.

The handwritten first page of the Burgess Roll showing the East Ward inhabitants of Barnsley
The first page of the Burgess Roll

Barnsley Archives are fortunate to hold the very first handwritten Burgess Roll for the Borough of Barnsley (recording those who could vote in borough elections), which has survived in good condition and dates back to August 1869. A burgess was a citizen or freeman of a borough and in this case it was a term given to those eligible to vote, following the creation of the new borough. The Burgess Roll is inscribed with the following paragraph:

“I the undersigned William Harrison Peacock do hereby Certify That I have in compliance with the directions contained in Her Majesty’s Royal Charter of Incorporation of the Borough of Barnsley dated at Westminster the fifth day of July One thousand eight hundred and sixty nine made out from the Burgess List of the Burgesses of the said Borough and from the List of Claims and Objections thereto as revised by William Shaw Esquire in pursuance of the said Royal Charter on the 20th and 21st days of August instant a Burgess Roll of the Burgesses of the said Borough in Alphabetical Lists of the Burgesses in each of the Wards of the said Borough in the manner prescribed by the said Royal Charter and that the foregoing is such Burgess Roll and was completed on this 26th day of August 1869. Wm. H. Peacock.”

The charter showing Barnsley incorporated as a Borough in 1869 and Barnsley’s first mayor Henry Richardson who played a pivotal roll in this happening.

William Peacock’s statement reveals that the 1869 Burgess Roll was compiled just six weeks or so after the creation of the new borough. It details the 1550 men in Barnsley who were able to vote at that time. Alongside their names is given the nature of their property which allowed them to vote – usually a shop, house, warehouse or land. The location of that property is then given. It also stipulates which of the six wards of the Borough they belong to. 164 men are listed as belonging to East Ward, 339 to West Ward, 129 to North Ward, 337 to South Ward, 308 to South East Ward, and 273 to South West Ward. They seem such tiny numbers when compared with the many thousands eligible to vote today.

A store room in the basement of the town hall, one of the racks is open showing 4 shelves of books
One of the stores rooms in Barnsley town hall

Fully available to researchers, this first Burgess Roll gives us a unique snapshot of Barnsley almost 150 years ago, along with all subsequent electoral rolls these can be viewed in our search-room without making an appointment. Visit our website for more details: https://www.experience-barnsley.com/our-archives

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