England Poor Law

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English poor law resulted from a gradual development of a poor relief or welfare system dating to medieval times[1]. The first laws enacted for dealing with poverty, vagrancy, and economic distress were the Statutes of Labourers of 1349-1351.[2]

Poor Law Records[edit | edit source]

Poor Law Records are records created by the process of caring for the poor. This includes records of rates (taxes) collected, as well as disbursements of, application for, and administration of poor relief or welfare. In England, the term poor law records usually applies to records created between the beginning of the English Poor Law Acts around 1600 until the abolishment of the Poor Law system in 1948.

English records relating to the poor fall into three time periods, namely:

  1. Prior to the establishment of the Poor Law System in the late 1500's (acts of 1597, 1598, and 1601)
  2. The Old Poor Law (1600-1834)
  3. The New Poor Law (1834-1948)

Pre-1600 Records of the Poor[edit | edit source]

Prior to 1600, responsibility for poor relief rested early on with the feudal Lord and later the Manorial Lord. Those who were neither serf nor manorial tenant as well as those traveling relied on the Catholic monasteries for relief from economic distress, temporary disability, or illness while away from family and friends.

The Family History researcher's best hope for finding any mention of a specific person during this time period (other than the nobility and manorial Lords) lies with records of daily life on the Manor. Manorial records mention many of the individual tenants and often give clues to their lives and even family relationships. See England Manor Records.

King Henry VIII's break with the Pope and the Catholic Church led to the establishment of the Church of England in 1534 and the abolishment of the monasteries by 1538. This led to a shift to the English parish for responsibility for the poor. A system developed for caring for the poor, which was codified with a series of Poor Law Acts of 1597, 1598, and finally the establishment of the Poor Law System in 1601.

The Old Poor Law (1600-1834)[edit | edit source]

Providing for the poor has long been challenge in England. This responsibility was placed on the parish officials in 1531. In the early years, each parish handled matters as they saw fit, since laws regulating the administration of matter dealing with the poor were not enacted until 1597, 1598, and 1601. The 1601 system was modified over the years, with Settlement Laws added in 1662. Providing relief for a person in need took time. Monies were collected by an appointed person from those who had land or property in the parish. An amount was assessed according to the value of their land or property.

Poor Law Records (pre-1834)[edit | edit source]

The Parish Chest

Poor law records deal with providing food, shelter, and sometime work for those who were in need. Records include settlement certificates, removal orders, workhouse records, minutes of meetings, accounts, rate books, appointment books (of overseers). Some of these records include names, dates, places and ages, while others are merely statistical. Records were kept in the parish chest and are included in the general term "parish chest records." For a fuller discussion of the records of the poor kept during this time period, see England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834.

Settlement Laws[edit | edit source]

Settlement Law was established in 1662, and modified by numerous subsequent acts of Parliament. Generally, before money was given to a person in need, the parish (or civil) overseer determined the parish of settlement. Money was hard to come by, and was only given in cases where it was justified by settlement as well as indigence. The parish of settlement was not always the parish of birth, since there were ways a person could re-establish settlement in another parish. When a woman married, her husband's parish of settlement became her parish of settlement. For more information on settlement, see England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834.

For a list of and full text of Acts establishing and modifying settlement law and poor law, see www.workhouses.org.uk.

The New Poor Law (1834-1948)[edit | edit source]

Following the report of a Parliamentary Commission of 1832, poor law unions governed by a civil board of guardians were established in 1834. The terms "old poor law," and "new poor law" are used to denote before or after 1834.

The 1834 Act established Poor Law Unions, a grouping of parishes who shared expenses and raised revenue for the operation of a Union workhouse. The Union workhouse had a Board of Guardians, as well as provisions for regular inspections and reviews. For more information of post-1834 Poor Law, workhouses, and Poor Law Unions, see England and Wales Poor Law 1834-1948.

Poor Law Union Records (1834-1948)[edit | edit source]

Records of the Union Workhouse and Union Board of Guardians are often extensive. While they vary by Union, they typically include[3]:

  • Workhouse Records
  • Admission and Discharge Books or Registers
  • Creed Registers
  • Registers of Births
  • Registers of Baptisms
  • Registers of Deaths, and
  • records of:
    • Workhouse Infirmaries
    • Pauper Lunatic Asylums
    • Out Relief
    • Poor Law Schools
    • Poor Law School Districts
    • Children in the Workhouse
    • Boarding out Children, and
    • Staff

A set of four volumes details records which survive for each Poor Law Union and where the originals are housed. Gibson, Jeremy, Colin Rogers and Cliff Webb. Poor Law Union Records: Birmingham, England: Federation of Family History Societies, 1993 (later editions vary by part #).WorldCat 230100951 FHL book 942 P37gj. The four volumes are:

1. South-East England and East Anglia.
2. The Midlands and Northern England.
3. South-West England. The Marches and Wales.
4. Gazetteer of England and Wales.

Links to Online Records and Finding Aids[edit | edit source]

The following are links to Poor Law records available online, alphabetized by county in England:

Finding Aids and more information:[edit | edit source]

Indexes to old poor law records are available for most counties in England. Check the poor law Wiki page for each county to learn more, example: Sussex Poor Law.

The following links are to sites with records or more information relating to poor laws in England.

  • Many poor law records have been indexed on the Access to Archives (A2A) web site. Go to the site and click on search, but be sure to read the “help” before conducting a search. If a relevant record is found on A2A, you may be able to find a copy of the original record at the Family History Library (see next item). If no record is available at the FHL, a photocopy of the document may be ordered from the record office or archive where the original document is located. A2A will provide the contact information for the archive.
  • National Archives: Looking for records of a workhouse inmate or member of staff
  • Workhouses.org - extensive information
  • Victorian Poor Law pages - http://www.victorianweb.org/history/poorlaw/poorlawov.html
  • Workhouse database - http://www.fourbears.uk.com/Unions/Poor_Law.html

References[edit | edit source]