Background: Most measures of quality of life (QoL) are based on ‘expert’ opinions. This study describes a new measure of QoL in older age, the Older People's QoL Questionnaire (OPQOL), which is unique in being derived from the views of lay people, cross-checked against theoretical models for assessment of comprehensiveness. Its performance was assessed cross-sectionally and longitudinally. It was compared with two existing QoL measures in the cross-sectional studies in order to identify the optimal measure for use with older populations. Methods Data were taken from three surveys of older people living at home in Britain in 2007–2008: one population survey of people aged 65+, one focused enumeration survey of ethnically diverse older people aged 65+, one follow-up of a population survey of people aged 65+ at baseline in 1999/2000. Measures were QoL (using OPQOL, Control, Autonomy, Satisfaction, Pleasure - 19 items (CASP-19), World Health Organization Quality of Life questionnaire - version for older people (WHOQOL-OLD)), health, social and socioeconomic circumstances. The CASP-19 and WHOQOL-OLD were not administered to the longitudinal sample in order to reduce respondent burden. Results Psychometric tests were applied to each QoL measure. The OPQOL, CASP-19 and WHOQOL-OLD performed well with the cross-sectional samples; however, only the OPQOL met criteria for internal consistency in the Ethnibus samples. Conclusion The OPQOL is of potential value in the outcome assessment of health and social interventions, which can have a multidimensional impact on people's lives. Further research is needed to examine whether differences by ethnicity reflect real differences in QoL, methodological issues, variations in expectations or cultural differences in reporting.