4 Powerful Ways You Need To Be Using Historical Voting Lists

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You’re hot on the trail of an elusive ancestor and relying on the census records to fill in some gaps. Bad news, they’re not in there. Worse news, you can’t find any census records at all. Whether by accident or to protect privacy, everything except statistical data is gone.  *sigh* Looks like you’re stuck with the historical voting lists instead. Sure, they have some facts, but can they help you propel your research forward?

Finally, some good news! Historical voting lists provide valuable facts about your ancestors. The lack of detail might be disappointing at first, but it’s what you do with what you have that counts.

Historical voting lists are an underrated genealogy resource. Not only will you get leads for future research, but you may also find answers to some of your questions.

You can use these records to discover:

  • foundation facts about every ancestor listed
  • leads for further research
  • a more detailed view of your ancestor’s story

Ready to learn more? Let’s dive in.

Bound old books of historical voting lists

Inside historical voting lists

A voting list (aka electoral roll) provides essential details about your ancestors. You can expect to find:

  • full name (first, middle and family name)
  • residential address
  • occupation 
  • gender

Okay, it’s not a lot, but it’s valuable information because these are foundation facts. Hmmm. Foundation facts? What does that mean? I’m glad you asked. It’s the unique data that lets you know you’ve discovered your relative and not someone with the same name. For example, full name, date of birth or known location.

Value of historical voting lists

Your discoveries depend on where you’re researching. For example, you have an advantage if your ancestors lived in a place where enrolment was mandatory. Or if the country was an early adopter when it came to granting suffrage rights to most or all citizens. Why? Because it increases the possibility of finding your relatives on the electoral roll.

Like most records, voting lists are only as good as the information provided at the time of printing. Generally speaking, individuals are responsible for keeping their details up-to-date. If they move and don’t change their address, then the data will be inaccurate.

In summary, remember that these records only show adults of voting age at the time of printing. That number will vary depending on location and year. Before you start, check what the minimum age was in that district as at the date of the record.

Searching for your ancestors’

The lists are grouped by voting district, and in alphabetical order by surname.  This order makes it easy to conduct either a physical or digital search. The only difference is for a physical search is that you’ll need to know which volumes to look in.

You won’t get a full list of the household because the list order is by surname not address. That means residents with a different family name will be elsewhere in the register. You’ll need to skim the entire volume for that district to see who else lived there, and to find neighbours. Is it worth the effort and time? Is it worth the effort and time? For me, it’s absolutely been worthwhile. Let me give you an example.

Have I told you about my uncle, Arnold Denis Rainbow Dwyer? It’s a pretty spectacular name, no? Not usual for western Queensland in 1898. Not so typical, right? His parents were first-generation Australian born to Irish parents. Nothing in their background hinted how he got his name. It was a family mystery for years.

Fast forward 20 plus years and I discovered the answer. There was a Rainbow family on the list of Pioneers for the town where my ancestors’ were. I laughed when I first saw it because I finally knew the origin of his middle name. If I hadn’t investigated my great-grandparents neighbours, then I wouldn’t have the answer.

Using your history voting lists discoveries to find out more 

Learning your ancestors’ address and occupation is impressive on its own. Plus it’s fun to add to your database and family trivia fun facts, but what are you doing with it after that?

Discoveries are rarely standalone events. You can usually find several ways to use the details to get more clues or another piece of your ancestor’s story. Making a new entry in your genealogy software is only the first step to take with these discoveries.

Want to get an in-depth view of your ancestors and see their details from other perspectives? Try these four steps to add value, get the bigger picture and solve some family mysteries along the way.

1. Create ancestral timelines

A timeline is a map of your life that shows the progress, highlights and lowlights.  Plotting the significant events of your life from day one up until today will give you an overview of what’s happened. At a glance, you’ll be able to see events such as: 

  • where and when you went to school 
  • jobs you’ve held
  • how often you’ve moved or travelled
  • if you got married, divorced or met a significant other
  • when you welcomed children and grandchildren into your life

As well as the impact of historical global, national or local events. It’s useful to capture these details as well as personal ones. After all, we often make decisions because of what’s happening around us.

On the whole, it was no different for your ancestors. They made decisions based on their experiences as well as the events happening around them. It’s for this reason that timelines are a valuable tool for your research.

How to create an ancestral timeline

  1. Using your research, write a list of everything you’ve discovered about your ancestor. Start with their birth and ending with their funeral service.
  2. Additionally, include any relevant historical local, national and global events. 

Add only on what you’ve already discovered. Don’t stop mid-process and move into research mode. One of the benefits of a timeline is gaps stand out, so you know where to do more concentrated research.

Level of difficulty – Easy. 

Example of how a timeline shows an overview of life events.
Example of how a detailed timeline.

Tools for the task

  • Draw it on a blank piece of paper 
  • Type it in a Word or Google doc
  • Create it in an app like Canva.com
  • Grab a pack of sticky notes to map it out on the wall. 
  • Use the printable timeline in the ‘Find The Story’ workbook – it’s free for newsletter subscribers.

What to add from the historical voting lists

You’ll want to include: 

  • the publication year of the voting list
  • the address or location
  • job or occupation 

What you’ll learn about your ancestor

  • Where they lived
  • How often or if they moved
  • When or if they changed jobs 

Prompts for further research

How would external events have affected your ancestor? Some example questions to consider are:

  • Was there an outbreak of a disease which caused loss of family members?
  • Did a drought or flood cause financial hardship? 
  • Was a war tearing their family apart? 
  • What was the unemployment rate? Were there many jobs or was steady work hard to find?

2. Build an ancestral map

Maps a fantastic reference tool to point out where you are and what is around you. You can also use maps to create a picture of where you’ve lived, worked and travelled during your lifetime. To add more detail include other locations such as:

  • where you have lived
  • the school/s you went to
  • where you previously or currently work
  • places you visit all the time (e.g. church, shopping district, parents house etc.)

Now you’ve created a picture of your life, providing valuable insight into your story. Following the same process, you can do this for your ancestors. Create a map of where you know they spent time. In doing so, you’ll discover both new leads to research as well as answer some of your questions.

How to create an ancestral map 

  1. Using your research, write a list of every place where you’ve discovered your ancestor. As well as the address, capture the date, who was with them, and the event.
  2. Add each address or place of interest to a map. Try sticky notes for a physical chart, and coloured ‘pins’ for a digital one.
  3. Make a note of other important buildings or locations such as school, church, hospital etc.

Are you using a current day map (e.g. Google Maps)? If so, be aware that street and place names do sometimes change. As a result, you may not be able to find your ancestor’s old address. In that case, check with the local council or historical society for copies of older maps of the area. Occasionally councils will have this information ready to download from their website (e.g. City of Sydney)

Get creative and use colour so you can to make it easy to distinguish the different location categories. Try different pins or sticky notes to show which places are for: 

  • home
  • holiday
  • education
  • employment
  • family

Level of difficulty – easy.

Note: Street and place name changes can make this task a little more complicated if using modern-day maps.

Adding facts source from historical voting lists onto maps

Tools for the task

  • Physical maps (current day or historical)
  • A digital mapping resource such as Google Maps 

What to add from historical voting lists

You’ll want to include:  

  • the publication year of the voting list
  • the address or location

What you can learn about your ancestor 

  • Where they lived and travelled
  • How often or if they moved
  • Local areas of interest (e.g. parks, towns, churches etc.)
  • Resources relevant to their livelihood (e.g. rivers, mountains, forests etc.)
  • Potential places of employment

Other resources

3. Build a historical job library

How people work, as well as the words we use to describe what they do is always changing. As a matter of fact, as technology advances, jobs become obsolete, and others become possible. Terminology can also differ based on location and culture.

Agggh! So many details to juggle. How do you keep track? Moreover is that even something you have to do?

Knowing what your ancestors’ did to support themselves and their families can tell you a lot. You’ll get insight into things such as their social standing and annual income. 

So creating a searchable list of job names and their descriptions will help you. Both when researching and later when writing or telling the stories. 

How to create a historical job library 

Create a spreadsheet with five columns –

  •  job name 
  • description 
  • years active
  • ancestor name 
  • place

Then add columns for any other information you want to capture as well.

Now, if spreadsheets aren’t your jam, then you can draw this up in an exercise book. Be prepared for it to get quite long!   I prefer the digital option because it is easy to search and make additions or fix errors. 

The next step is to add in jobs as you discover new ones. Once you have the occupation name, use your favourite search engine to find out more. Be prepared to visit a few sites for enough information to write a clear description. And r.emember to keep a record of your sources in case you need them later on. 

Level of difficulty – easy.  

Blacksmith holding his tools

Tools for the task

  • Write a list in an exercise book
  • A set of index cards (one for each job) and alphabetical tabs (for easy searching)
  • Typed sheets and alphabetical tabs in a binder
  • Create a searchable spreadsheet using Excel or Google Sheets 

What to add from historical voting lists

You’ll want to include: 

  • the publication year of the voting list
  • name of the ancestor 
  • the town or district
  • job or occupation name

What you’ll learn about your ancestors

  • How their job changed their social standing
  • Was it a family occupation taught from one generation to the next
  • Did industrial or technology developments cause unemployment
  • Was their income affected by severe weather events

Also, if you used a spreadsheet, then you can filter the data to get a complete list of jobs per ancestor or region/town.

Other resources

4. Your family history library of names

On the whole, you’ll have no shortage of names while on your genealogy journey.  And even though names are your primary tool to find an ancestor, the spelling won’t be the same on every record. Occasionally the names are difficult to recognize but it’s your ancestor nonetheless.

As a result of these discrepancies, you’ll want to keep track of all the different variations. So a searchable spreadsheet will be the easiest way to stay on top of your ancestors’ unintentional aliases.

How to create your family history name library

Create a spreadsheet with seven columns – 

  • family name
  • given names
  • nationality (if known)
  • region
  • year recorded
  • document source
  • ancestor match

Then add columns for any other information you want to capture as well (e.g. neighbours or family friends).

Level of difficulty – easy.

Family photos albums with names and other details

Tools for the task

  • A set of index cards (one per family card)
  • Typed pages in a binder (one per family name)
  • Write a list in an exercise book
  • Create a searchable spreadsheet using Excel or Google Sheets  

What to add from historical voting lists

  • You’ll want to include: 
  • The publication year of the voting list
  • Name of the ancestor 
  • People with the same family name – even if you can’t prove a relationship
  • Other residents of the same household with a different surname

It’s optional, but I also include any neighbours in the same street. As communities were more likely to help one another, those names might be useful later on. 

What you’ll learn about your ancestor

This exercise won’t necessarily teach you anything about your ancestors’. Instead, it helps in other ways, such as:

  • Improving your chance of discovering ancestors’ in the record books 
  • Better use of wildcard features in searches
  • Matching nicknames and ‘known as’ names to a specific ancestor

Other resources

In summary

Historical voting lists aren’t only confirmation of your ancestors’ residence. Instead, these facts are useful to create a clearer picture of your ancestors’ life. However, when used strategically, you can uncover more leads to pursue or answers to questions you’ve had for some time.

  • Discover gaps and stories with an ancestral timeline
  • Uncover clues with an ancestral map
  • Unlock their skills with the job library
  • Solve mysteries with the name library

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