England and Wales Poor Law Records 1834-1948

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The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 placed the responsibility for the care of the poor in England and Wales, from 1834 onward, on Poor Law Unions. The Poor Law Unions and their workhouses took over this responsibility from the Church of England parishes. Prior to 1834 a few parishes or collections of parishes had established a few workhouses to help relieve the poor and provide indoor relief in the form of food, clothes and shelter (Bristol 1696). Both outdoor relief, in which recipients lived in their home while receiving some form of relief, and indoor relief (workhouse living) were offered, as needed, prior to 1834. From 1834 onward all relief was supposed to be given in the workhouse only.

Former England Workhouse.jpg

Time Period[edit | edit source]

The New Poor Law and its records began in 1834 and continued until 1948 when it was replaced by the National Health Care system.

Population coverage[edit | edit source]

Poor law records covered many, many people, both the poor and those who paid the tax to support them. This tax, called a rate, was collected from all the householders in the parish who were not paupers themselves.

Research goals satisfied by the information in the material[edit | edit source]

A researcher can find names of individuals and entire families listed in poor law records. Poor or pauper families often have all their names listed in the admission register along with the dates of admission, occupation, age, religion, parish, and the cause of need for relief. Frequently a mother and her children are recorded together. Some births/baptisms and deaths/burials of the poor are recorded.

Poor law administrative records also contain information on the individuals administering relief and employed in the system. They contain the names, some relationships, time and place and activities of the various levels of supervising officers and other employees.

Survival of original material[edit | edit source]

Most records survive from the dates of the various Poor Law Unions organization and the establishment of their workhouse. The various records that survive can be extensive and guides to each Poor Law Union and workhouse should be searched if any are available.

Historical background[edit | edit source]

Wikipedia has more about this subject: English Poor Laws

Prior to 1834, each parish took care of its own poor, including collecting a rate to cover costs and administering relief.

Further information: England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834

In 1834 the government reformed the poor law system, joining parishes into poor law unions which took over responsibilities for administering relief. In a rural area a poor law union would comprehend many parishes. In an urban area, a poor law union might cover just a part of the city. In 1834 there were approximately 15,500 parishes in England and Wales which were organized into 643 unions that covered the counties of England and Wales. Poor law unions were organized around the largest town in an area and therefore often overstepped county boundaries.

Each Poor Law Union that was established in England and Wales was presided over by an elected Board of Guardians. Each Union was to have its own workhouse. From 1834 forward, poor relief was intended to be given only in the workhouse (indoor relief) and it was intended that no outdoor relief (help given to people so they could stay outside the workhouse) or aid to wages (allowances) was to be given to the “able-bodied” poor. However, each union acted independently of all others and this rule was not strictly followed in some unions.

The intent of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was to discourage pauperism or the seeking of relief by forcing would-be relief applicants to enter the workhouse—if they didn’t want to enter the workhouse, then they did not really need relief. Exceptions were made for the old, the sick, and widows with dependent children.

Each board appointed permanent officers such as the Relieving officer and the workhouse master and matron, schoolmaster, and medical officers, and then supervised their activities and the expenditures of the union. Each level of administration created its own set of records for those they supervised and the expenditures made in the carrying out of its duties. Both the Board of Guardians and its workhouse generated their own sets of records for administrative and functional purposes.

Each parish was expected to pay its share of the expenses for the operation of the workhouse to which it belonged, as well as a charge for each individual that lived in the workhouse that had been sent there by the parish. Each parish therefore continued to collect poor rates (taxes) in the parish from its parishioners and these records will be found in the respective parish chest material.

For more information, go to Peter Higgenbotham's excellent Web site http://www.workhouses.org.uk/.

Significant Acts[edit | edit source]

1835 Highway Act[edit | edit source]

Responsibility for highways passed to the new civil, local authorities, and the post of Surveyor of Highways abolished.

1842 Parish Constables Act[edit | edit source]

Constables now appointed by the Justices of the Peace, and county constabularies started in 1839, gradually replacing the parish constables.

From this date the parents of an illegitimate child could not be forced by the overseers to marry.

A person who had lived for five years in a parish without claiming poor relief was deemed to be settled there, and this was reduced to three years in the 1860s.

Minimum age for binding an apprentice raised to nine.

1851 Labouring Classes Lodging Houses Act

By this act local authorities were enabled to borrow money to erect or purchase lodging houses for the working classes. John Richardson,The Local Historian’s Encyclopaedia, states that it was totally ignored.

Charity Commissioners were appointed to control abuses in almshouses and from now on most establishments gradually came under public control.

Civil Highway Boards took over maintenance of roads.

Poor Rate was replaced by a Union Rate.

1869 Formation of the Charity Organization Society[edit | edit source]

Which recognized the weakness of the pauperism theory, and spoke of the difference between deserving poor, who should be aided by charitable groups, and the undeserving poor for whom the Poor Law was really designed.

1871 Local Government Board Act
This act introduced a central government department for administering both poor relief and public health.

1875 Artisans and Labourers Dwellings Improvement Act
Gave authorities the power to compulsively buy up and either improve or demolish slum property however it, too, was rarely used.

1876 Divided Parishes and Poor Law Amendment Act
It was the first time the settlement laws were substantially changed since 1697.

1890 Housing Act[edit | edit source]

Local authorities were assisted in clearing slums, and public subsidies were made available for building working class housing, with adjustments in 1923 and 1924. Authorities were getting concerned about health issues by this time and more action was taken. It should be noted that in the 1891 census statistics were compiled on overcrowding in towns and cities by asking how many rooms were occupied.

Establishment of County Councils and County Boroughs.

1894 Local Government Act[edit | edit source]

The Local Government Act (1894) divided England and Wales into about 14,000 parishes, mainly following the boundaries of the former civil parishes. At this time rationalization of boundaries was also achieved by removing detached portions and dealing with divided parishes. These are the parishes in use for modern records; the researcher is cautioned to ascertain the precise boundaries of his parish at the time of ancestral habitation by the use of contemporary maps and other sources.

Children were removed from the workhouse, and the first old age pensions were introduced.

Labour Exchanges started up to assist the unemployed to find work.

Unemployment and health insurance introduced.

1919 Ministry of Health[edit | edit source]

Took over administration of the previously combined poor relief and public health.

1929 Local Government Act[edit | edit source]

This act abolished the Boards of Guardians whose functions were taken over by new County Councils and County Boroughs, which established Area Guardians Committees.

1930 Poor Law Act[edit | edit source]

So many other institutions and programmes had now come into being that this act allowed only the aged and infirm to apply for care in the workhouse, but outdoor relief could be given if necessary. Another provision required local councils to care for orphans. Many workhouses closed but the buildings were adapted to other uses, particularly as auxiliary or cottage hospitals, or asylums. The author was born during the war in a still-functioning workhouse, in the tramps (or itinerant) ward that was in temporary use as a maternity ward for evacuees. My mother remembered the old ladies who cleaned the ward as long-time workhouse inmates. This 1835 building, the interior modernized and with some additions, is now the hospital in Winslow, Buckinghamshire. The place of birth on my birth certificate reads 1 Buckingham Road, Winslow so no-one would know of my ignominious start! At least anything I did in life would be a move up the social scale!

National Health Service[edit | edit source]

1948 National Health Service[edit | edit source]

One of the first priorities of the Labour Government elected after the Second World War was the establishment of an egalitarian health care system. The National Assistance Act closed the remaining workhouses, moving the few aged and infirm occupants to other facilities, and set up the National Health System which survives with modifications today.[1]

Types of records generated by the poor law[edit | edit source]

There are many, many, types of records. Below are just a few of the more useful for genealogical research. For a comprehensive listing of records, see Jeremy Gibson, Colin Rogers, and Cliff Webb, Poor Law Union Records, 2nd Edition (Birmingham, England : Federation of Family History Societies, 1997. Also just browsing what records are available may generate ideas of other records to search.

Birth and/or baptism registers[edit | edit source]

These records list births and/or baptisms that took place of workhouse inmates. During the early time period of civil registration, there are some events recorded in these registers that never were recorded in civil registration. Registers give the name, birth date, and baptism date of the child, parents’ names, whether legitimate or illegitimate, and to what parish they belong.

Death and/or burial registers[edit | edit source]

These register record deaths and burial of workhouse inmates. The registers give name, age, death date and to what parish they belong.

Admission and discharge registers[edit | edit source]

These records list the name of the pauper, date of admission, age, occupation, religion, parish to which charged (implying their parish of legal settlement), cause of need of relief. When a pauper was discharged it gives the date of discharge, the parish to which charged, and how discharged. Many were discharged upon their own request.

Creed register (from 1876)[edit | edit source]

These registers list name, date of birth, date and place of admission, creed, source of information, date of discharge or death; some give occupation, last address, name and address of nearest relative.

Indoor Relief List[edit | edit source]

This was compiled from admission and discharge registers every six months. Sometimes it was indexed and therefore can be used as a rough index to admission and discharge registers. Indoor relief lists give whether able-bodied, adult or child, “calling” of pauper, when born, religion, and name. Although the registers call for all of this information, it is not always filled in.

Out Relief Books[edit | edit source]

Name of the pauper, when born, parish where residing, for how long relief was needed and amount of relief. Some only give the name of the pauper and a check-mark in a pre-printed column as to who they are and why they need relief.

Correspondence[edit | edit source]

The correspondence records from the Board of Guardians and other local authorities to the National Poor Law commission. These include some names of paupers and details of their cases, and many applications of persons wishing to be employed in the workhouse. Most of these records are at the National Archives, with the largest series being MH 12, covering 1834-1900. The records are organized by union but unfortunately, they are not indexed by name or place within a union, so they are very difficult to use. A subject index appears in MH 15.

Board of Guardians records[edit | edit source]

The Board of Guardians records include the minutes of their meetings (which sometimes contain inmate names) and these are available for many Unions. The Board records also include the union workhouse staffing records which contain the applications for positions within the staff of the workhouse, and these contain names, dates and qualifications of applicants. Staff notices of those leaving employment with the workhouse, including names, dates, and reasons for leaving are in the surviving records.

Before using this record know[edit | edit source]

The names, approximate ages, and places of residence of ancestors. It is also helpful if you can determine to which poor law union your parish belonged. See Peter Higginbotham's web site: www.workhouses.org.uk and click on “Workhouse Locations” in the menu on the left-hand side of the page. Then click on the area of interest, and then on the name of the poor law union. Each poor law union will list all the parishes that belonged to it. It may take several guesses before finding the correct one.

Before using this record search[edit | edit source]

First search civil registration (began 1 July 1837) and census (first England and Wales every-name census was 1841) records. Next search church records where available. Then search poor law records.

Where to find these records/How to search the record[edit | edit source]

1. Links to web sites containing English poor law records online are listed at England Poor Law In addition, 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, a researcher 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.

2. Some poor law records have indexes available at the Family History Library (FHL). Try a “place” search for your county and then look under the topic Poorhouses, poor law, etc. – Indexes. Also try a “keyword” search in the FamilySearch Catalog for England Poor Law Index [County or Parish], for example England Poor Law Index Cambridgeshire. Sometimes putting the county or parish in your search will throw it off, so try it without putting the county or parish in also.

The FHL has many poor law records that are not indexed. Go to the FamilySearch Catalog and do a “place” search for the appropriate poor law union (To find the appropriate poor law union for a parish, see Peter Higginbotham's web site: www.workhouses.org.uk and click on “Workhouse Locations” in the menu on the left-hand side of the page. Then click on the area of interest, and then on the name of the poor law union. Each poor law union will list all the parishes that belonged to it. It may take several guesses before finding the correct one.) Then go to the topic Poorhouses, poor law, etc. Also try a “place” search for the county, under the appropriate county select the topic of Poorhouses, poor law, etc. Be sure to also do a “place” search for the parish the ancestor lived in as well, this time checking under not only Poorhouses, poor law, etc. but also Church records. Although poor law unions were created in 1834, many parishes continued to keep poor law records, and every parish still had to raise rates to support the poor law union.

3. For locations of original records, see Peter Higginbotham's web site: www.workhouses.org.uk. Or consult a reference book such as Jeremy Gibson, Colin Rogers, and Cliff Webb, Poor Law Union Records, 2nd Edition (Birmingham, England : Federation of Family History Societies, 1997).

4. The National Archives in England is conducting a project to catalogue and make available digital scans of 105 volumes relating to 20 areas (22 poor law unions) across England and Wales.

Related articles[edit | edit source]

Wiki articles describing online collections are found at:

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Christensen, Penelope. "England New Poor Law, 1834 through 1948 (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/England_New_Poor_Law,_1834_through_1948_%28National_Institute%29.