Freeholders' records are lists of people entitled to vote, or of people who voted, at elections. A freeholder was a man who owned his land outright (in fee) or who held it by lease which could be for one or more lives (for example, his own life or for the lives of other people named in the lease). From 1727 to 1793 only Protestants with a freehold worth at least 40 shillings a year were legally permitted to vote. Between 1793 and 1829 both Protestants and Catholics with 40 shilling freeholds could vote, but in 1829 the franchise level was increased to 10 pounds, so 40 shilling freeholders were no longer allowed to vote. This last measure increased the influence of landlords by effectively confining membership of Parliament to the propertied or monied classes.
Before the 1872 Ballot Act introduced the secret ballot, voters were required to stand up and declare publicly their electoral allegiance. Their fear of going against the landlords' wishes resulted in a substantial number of candidates returned being either landlords or their relations or supporters.
PRONI's freeholders project entailed the digitisation of c.5,500 sheets from pre-1840 Registers and Poll Books, and the provision of an index of names linked to the high-quality digitised images. This allows for more flexible navigation and readier access to a unique resource for family and local history. It is hoped that on-line access will encourage a wider and more inclusive audience, especially those who are unable to visit PRONI in person.
The scarcity of documentary sources for the 18th and early 19th centuries, partly because of the non-existence of census material and partly due to the destruction in 1922 of most of the public records of Ireland, made it necessary to seek substitutes for the destroyed records and to make them accessible for research. Freeholders' Registers and Poll Books are one such substitute resource and are, therefore, of particular value to historians, perhaps for analysing voting patterns or the strength of the tenant electorate on estates.
PRONI's freeholders records come from a variety of sources and are arranged on a county basis. They comprise two main types:
- Registers - details of those who had registered to vote
- Poll Books - lists of voters and the candidates for whom they voted
Freeholders’ records provide a range of information about land ownership and may contain all or some of the following:
Name of freeholder, Address of freeholder, Location of freehold, Description of freehold, Name of landlord, Address of landlord, Value of freehold, Names of other lives, Date and place of freeholder’s registration, Occupation of freeholder, Religion of freeholder.
Some of the records survive in their original form, while some are transcripts. Some are in manuscript while others are printed or typed.
PRONI’s digitisation of the Freeholders’ Records aims to improve access to this valuable archival resource, made all the more important by the lack of census returns for the period. The paper records were scattered throughout various archives and were tedious to use without an index. On-line access to the material should greatly facilitate genealogical and historical research into the pre-1840 period.