England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834
Before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536-9, the monasteries took care of the poor in England and Wales. With the monasteries gone, this responsibility was shifted to each parish. An entire system of laws and documents grew up around caring for the poor. For the researcher, these documents can be invaluable in tracing migration of families, both poor and not poor, in England and Wales. Poor law documents can also reveal family relationships as well as giving insight into living conditions of ancestors. Poor law records are also known as parish chest records. This is because a chest kept in the church or the priest’s house was used to store parish records.
- 1 Time Period
- 2 Population coverage
- 3 Research goals satisfied by the information in the material
- 4 Survival of original material
- 5 Significant Acts
- 6 Historical background of the parish and its role in local government and poor law
- 7 Types of records generated by the poor law
- 8 Which Poor Law Record Should I Look For?
- 9 Before using this record know
- 10 Before using this record search
- 11 Where to find these records/How to search the record
- 12 What to do next
- 13 References
The major portion of the Old Poor Law Records (Pre-1834) date after 1680 and up to the year 1834 when the new poor laws became effective.
- Further information: England and Wales Poor Law Records 1834-1948.
The poorest class of people are covered in this record type. All householders (anyone who owned or rented property) in a parish are also covered in the rate (tax) that was collected to support the poor. Therefore, population coverage is high.
Research goals satisfied by the information in the material
It is possible to identify whole families, father, mother and children, by given name and surname in some of the Old Poor Law Records. In other records only a father or a mother or some of the children are named. It is also possible to track a poor family’s movements between parishes, even if the parishes are in different counties. In the case of an illegitimate birth, it may be possible to discover the name of the child’s father. See table below for which specific records can help solve which genealogical problems.
Survival of original materialThe Old Poor Law Records that survive vary greatly in content and quality from county to county, parish to parish and quarter session court to quarter session court.
Further information: England Quarter Session Records.
1662 Act of Settlement
Prior to this date anyone able to work had been free to move wherever they wanted to, but this was changed in 1662. The Act of Settlement established the concept of each person being settled in one parish that was responsible for them. Previously a person’s birthplace had always been considered his true home, and if this was not known then any parish where he had lived one whole year became his settlement.
New provisions included:
- New methods of acquiring settlement included renting a house worth £10 per year, being in the parish for 40 days without a complaint being made, or if a woman, being married to a parishioner.
- Overseers could send or remove a newcomer if he had no prospect of work within 40 days, or if he did not rent property worth £10 or more a year.
- A sojourner, one who was a temporary inhabitant, for example for the harvest, had to bring with him a certificate from his home parish indicating that they would take him back.
- After 40 days residence a stranger could then claim settlement in his new parish.
- Persistent vagrants were variously punished, including by transportation to North America.
1691 Highways Act
Authorized raising of a highway rate and better keeping of accounts.
A further law required a register to be kept of those receiving poor relief. Until 1834 expenditures on the poor can be found in several documents, typically the overseers accounts, a separate poor book (if kept), churchwardens accounts and vestry minutes.
1697 Settlement Act
Strengthened the current law by:
- Requiring all strangers entering a new parish to possess a Settlement Certificate showing which was their home parish that would guarantee to take them back if in need of relief.
- Paupers and their families were now required to wear a badge with a capital P together with the first letter of the name of their parish on the right shoulder of their outermost clothing. If they did not they could lose their support, be imprisoned, set to hard labour or whipped. Paupers were thus called badge-men or badgers from this time, but the term badger also meant a pedlar.
First workhouse or house of industry, opened in Bristol.
1722/3 Knatchbull’s Act
From this time:
- Parishes were encouraged to either build or rent a workhouse and were allowed to contract out its maintenance and supervision.
- A small parish might now unite with another to provide a viable workhouse.
- Vagrant’s children could be apprenticed against their parents’ wishes.
- A person harbouring a vagrant could be fined up to £2.
- Illegitimate children did not now receive settlement in their parish of birth, but usually in their mother’s parish. (However some texts give the date of this improvement as 1732/3 and others as 1743/4). This humanized the former draconian treatment of unmarried pregnant women being sent from parish to parish as their confinement drew near. If the overseers could ‘persuade’ the father to marry the mother then the child’s settlement would then be in his parish, and the father took responsibility for mother and child from then on anyway.
Costs of removal to be born by the parish of settlement.
A mother carrying an illegitimate child was obliged to declare this fact and to state the name of the father to the overseers. Men charged as fathers of bastards to be apprehended and committed to gaol until they gave security to indemnify the parish from expense. Removal of women who were pregnant or within one month of childbirth was prohibited.
Parishes ordered to keep proper accounts. Reward of 5/- offered for apprehension of any vagrant.
Parishes were enabled to buy or rent premises for a workhouse and to employ a workhouse-keeper.
1782 Gilbert’s Act
Gilbert’s Act attempted to ameliorate workhouse conditions by:
- Restricting indoor relief to the impotent poor, and allowed the able-bodied to obtain work outside the workhouse.
- Not separating children under 7 from their parents.
- Boarding out orphans and foundlings to have a more home-like environment, and paying poor women to look after them, or to nurse the sick.
- Paupers were not sent to workhouses more than 10 miles from their former homes.
- The pauper’s badge was no longer required to be worn by those of good character.
- Building of workhouses by unions of parishes was encouraged, and about 70 such voluntary Gilbert Unions were in existence by 1834.
- Provision of more economic workhouses was stimulated.
- Inspectors were appointed to enforce these laws
Removal was only to be enforced when a person actually became chargeable, not on mere suspicion that they might become so. Justices were now allowed to suspend removals for those who were sick, and the bills for non-settled paupers were sent to their own parish for reimbursement.
1795 Young’s Act—Speenhamland System
A meeting of Berkshire Justices of the Peace in the parish of Speen took place during a time of low wages and high prices. These men inaugurated a system of supplementing wages from the poor rates, based upon the current price of bread that was widely copied in southern and eastern England. Although seemingly progressive and fair it was found to:
- Encourage employers to underpay their labourers knowing that they would receive additional money from the overseers.
- Increase the number of people applying for relief.
- Cause holdings to be abandoned in areas where poor rates were high.
- Cause a general demoralization amongst recipients.
1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act
1808 Care of Lunatics
Formerly most mentally ill were dumped in the workhouse along with the indigent poor, unmarried mothers, orphans, and the physically sick and elderly. There were a few private lunatic asylums patronized by the wealthy, but the new act allowed magistrates at the Quarter Sessions to construct a special county lunatic asylum available to all who needed it. Public Record Office leaflets D 104 and D 105 give further information about care and records of lunatics
No pauper was now required to wear a badge.
A further act ordered parish overseers to send lists of their pauper lunatics to the Quarter Sessions via the Clerk of the Peace.
An act restricted the distance that London children could be sent for apprenticeships to 40 miles.
An act made it possible to arrange the conveyance of vagrants to Ireland and Scotland by contracting with shipping companies.
Historical background of the parish and its role in local government and poor law
Each parish was independent of all other parishes in caring for its poor and had to raise rates (collect taxes) for this purpose. It was the parish churchwardens’ responsibility to collect the money from all householders (anyone who owned or rented property) in the parish, except the poor. Some parishes collected rates as early as the 1620’s and 1630’s and the practice was largely universal in England by the late 1600’s. The First Poor Law Act came into effect in 1601. It defined the duties of each parish in relation to the poor.
The vestry council was the voice of the ratepayers and had to agree on the amounts to be charged the rate payers each year. The overseers of the poor used the money and in-kind payments collected in the parish to care for the poor in the parish. As a result parish officials were careful to keep those of other parishes that needed relief out of the parish, and kept a close watch on who moved into the parish. Both the churchwardens and the overseers of the poor kept records (account books) relating to their responsibilities in the parish.
In some of the larger cities, parishes banded together and set up workhouses to care for the poor even prior to 1834. Records maintained by these institutions may survive and be available for examination. They can be located in the same way that other poor law records are, see the section on finding records below.
Types of records generated by the poor law
Vestry minutes and Overseers’ accounts are that contain information about the poor and those who supported them. These account books survive from as early as the 1600’s in some parishes.
The Overseer was chosen at a meeting of the parish vestry to administer the Poor Law for the coming year, and more than one could be appointed depending on the size of the parish. The Overseer held the responsibility to manage the parish monies while trying to show mercy to those in need. He would collect rates to cover the costs of relief and then dole out that relief as needed. This would involve the decision about illegitimate children, apprenticing out those unable to pay their way and handling vagrants who tried to settle in the parish.
The Churchwardens accounts contain similar records to the Overseers accounts. Churchwardens were to be elected annually from among the ratepayers of the parish. A churchwarden was one of usually two annually-elected parishioners responsible for the maintenance of much of the parish church, churchyard and parish property that was owned by the parish. Their duties included observing the actions of parish individuals and families, and maintaining the religiosity of the parishioners. Along with the overseer, the Churchwardens would supervise the relief of the poor and care of the sick.
Research Use: Account books are helpful because they often survive when other poor law papers do not. For example, perhaps a bastardy record has been lost, but the account book might list an entry such as “Paid 10 shillings by John Doe for the maintenance of Mary Smith’s child,” which would imply that he was the reputed father. Search the overseers’ accounts first, if they are available, next the vestry minutes, and then churchwardens’ accounts.
To view an account of the overseer for the poor see England Account Books: Sample of an Overseer Account .
Apprenticeship of poor or orphaned children
Children of poor families, orphans and widows’ children were often apprenticed out, at the parishes’ expense, to masters who might give them a trade. However, not all of the children were bonded to masters of skilled trades but were used instead as unpaid servants. These apprenticeships would alleviate the parish of any further expense for the child. Girls were usually apprenticed until they became 21 years of age or got married, and boys till they were 24 years old. The master had a legal obligation to feed, clothe and train the apprentice.
Research Use: Apprenticeship indentures are helpful because they will often list a child’s father and the child’s age. They may alsos help in tracking down stray children.
Discussion of these kinds of cases would be noted in the vestry minutes. If the problem was more serious than usual the matter may have been referred to the Quarter Session court for action where records of the case may be found.
Research Use: Bastardy records are valuable because they will often give the name of a child’s father, even when the parish register baptism for that child does not.
Additional Reading: Illegitimacy in England
Rate books list the names and sums paid by each householder for the poor rate, or the church rate, or the highway rate, were often recorded on a yearly basis.
Research Use: Rate books are helpful because it is often possible to track when a householder arrived and left a parish based on his appearance and disappearance from the rate books.
Settlement: Certificates, Examinations, and Removal Orders
One document that came into being with the 1662 Poor Relief Act was the settlement certificate. These documents came in a variety of forms depending on the year they were drawn up but they were kept by the parish officials in the parish chest. The purpose of the certificate was to identify an individual’s or a family’s parish of legal settlement. Originally they were given to individuals or heads of families when they moved from their parish of legal settlement. The certificate was given to the officials of the new parish of residence in case the individual or family ever needed relief. If they required relief the parish of legal settlement had to pay for the relief or take them back.
Often individuals and families left their parish of legal settlement without obtaining a settlement certificate (for various reasons). When parish officials became aware of a new and unknown individual or family living in the parish that seemed likely to end up on parish relief, the overseers of the poor or the constable held a settlement examination with the stranger(s) to determine their financial condition and their parish of legal settlement.
If the examination proved that the stranger was not a legal resident of that parish and a potential liability to the parish, a removal order would be drawn up and given to the constable to have them removed or transported out of the parish back to their parish of legal settlement. Without a settlement certificate, however, the supposed parish of legal settlement might not take the family back but rather might appeal to the court against the claim. This resulted in another record being generated with useful genealogical information. This record is most often found in the Quarter Session court records. An act of 1794/5 stopped parishes from removing people unless they actually became a liability to the parish.
Research Use: Settlement records are valuable because they can solve migration problems pointing a researcher back to an earlier parish of residence or even birth.
Workhouse accounts and Minutes
If individuals or families were assigned to a workhouse, these records may be very valuable in confirming the whereabouts of individuals. The web site http://www.workhouses.org.uk/ is another place to familiarize yourself with the conditions of the workhouses.
These records, if they exist, will list those that the parish financially assisted so that they could leave the country. Sometimes the parish decided to do this if they felt it was less expensive to finance the journey rather than have those individuals on their poor records for an extended length of time.
Which Poor Law Record Should I Look For?
|If you want to:||Look for:|
|Trace where a family came from before the current parish of residence.||Settlement certificate, settlement examination, removal order|
|Trace when a family arrived in and left the parish.||Rate books|
|Find the father of an illegitimate child.||Parish register baptism, bastardy bond, bastardy examination, indemnification order|
|Find the father and/or age of a pauper child.||Apprenticeship indenture|
|Make up for the loss of other types of poor law records. Find information recorded nowhere else.||Overseers’ accounts, vestry minutes, churchwardens’ accounts|
Before using this record know
- The name(s) of the parishes where the ancestral families lived and the name(s) of the ancestral family members.
Before using this record search
- Parish registers for baptisms, marriages and burials of family members
Where to find these records/How to search the record
- Be aware that not all parishes will have all these types of records, and the terminology itself may vary from parish to parish. The most common records are Overseers Minutes and Churchwardens Accounts. Be prepared to explore all records in a parish to see where the records of the poor may be stored.
- These records become very valuable to the family history researcher as people are named and families are identified and linked together. Not all parishes did a good job of recording or archiving the parish business records and, consequently, parish chest records are not available for every parish in England. Also weather, calamaties and plague contributed to the lack of records in some areas. Most surviving documents have been deposited in the county record offices.
- Many poor law records have been indexed on the Web site http://www.a2a.org.uk . 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 step 4. 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.
- Some record offices and societies have online catalogs enabling the user to locate the different types of records and, in some instances, the records are being indexed and produced on purchasable CD’s. Many of the record offices now have their own web sites. The easiest way to locate the site is to use a search engine such as Google or go to http://www.genuki.org.uk and select the specific county. Search the Archives & Libraries title for the link.
- Some poor law records have indexes available at the Family History Library (FHL). At https://www.familysearch.org/#form=catalog use a “place names” search for your county and then look under the topic Poorhouses, poor law, etc. – Indexes. Also try a “keyword” search in the 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 online catalog and do a “place” search for the appropriate ancestral parish. Then go to the topic of Church records and/or Poorhouses, poor law, etc. Then select parish chest records, or other poor law records such as churchwarden’s accounts, overseer of the poor accounts, vestry minutes, settlement examinations, removal orders, apprenticeships, etc. Be sure to check all parishes the family might have lived in. Also try a “place” search for the county. Under the appropriate county select the topic of Poorhouses, poor law, etc.
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
What to do next
Search Quarter Sessions records for more poor law material—settlement examinations, removal orders, bastardy bonds, etc.
- Further information: England Quarter Session Records
- Christensen, Penelope. "England Old Poor Law, 1601 through 1833 (National Institute)," The National Institute for Genealogical Studies (2012), https://familysearch.org/learn/wiki/en/England_Old_Poor_Law,_1601_through_1833_%28National_Institute%29.