England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834

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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.

Time Period

Wikipedia has more about this subject: English Poor Laws

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.

Population coverage

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 (link to table that tells which record to use when looking for what).

Survival of original material

The 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 (link here to article on Quarter Session records).

Historical background of the parish and its role in local government and poor law

Exeter Work House 1744.jpg
The English parish served many functions. The parish church served as a place of worship. The parish priest officiated at baptisms, marriages, and burials for those who lived in the boundaries of his parish. The parish also served as a unit of local government which took care of many of the day-to-day matters of life such as the collection of taxes, creating and maintaining roads through the parish, and taking care of the poor people living in the parish. The vestry council, usually just called the vestry, was the administrative body of this local government. The vestry consisted of a small group of persons, often the well-to-do of the parish. There were various parish officers charged with carrying out the vestry’s decisions—the constable, the churchwardens, the overseers of the poor, and others. Two churchwardens were chosen each year--one by the priest, and one by the people with the priest’s approval. The churchwardens were responsible for maintenance of the church, collection of some taxes, and other duties as appointed by the vestry. Two overseers of the poor were chosen each year as well. The overseers of the poor were charged with overseeing all matters relating to the care of the poor. Usually the churchwardens and overseers were amongst the prominent men of the parish.

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

Account books

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.

Bastardy records

Cambridgeshire Bastardy Bonds 1789.JPG
Parish officials were always vigilant in learning if a young woman in the parish was pregnant out of wedlock. If a young woman was of legal settlement in the parish and became pregnant prior to marriage, she would potentially become a burden on the parish for her maintenance during her pregnancy, the birth of the child and her maintenance afterward. Therefore when a young woman was discovered to be pregnant out of wedlock a bastardy examination would be held with her to try to determine the father of the child. If the name of the father was revealed, the father could be called in and encouraged to marry the young woman or ordered to sign a bastardy bond and forced to pay for the maintenance of the mother and later the child also. A bastardy maintenance order would be issued for the child’s maintenance during his growing up years. If the father of the child fled the area prior to his being confronted or before signing a maintenance bond then a bastardy warrant could be issued for his return to the officials of the parish. If returned, he would face an examination or ordered to appear in the quarter session court for a hearing, the posting of the bond and/or maintenance order.

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.

Rate books

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

Cambridgshire Settlement Paper 1720.jpg
Most of the surviving poor law records date from the first law regarding settlement, the Poor Relief Act of 1662. This law said that a person must have a legal settlement in the parish in order to qualify for parish relief. Most of the conditions required to have legal settlement in a parish were designed to make sure that the only people entitled to relief were people who probably would never need it. Legal settlement was the overlying principle of poor relief, and there were a number of regulations in place requiring proof that someone was legally in the parish. Some of these were: being born in the parish of legally settled parents; holding a parish office, serving an apprenticeship to someone already legally settled, paying at least ₤10 rent per year in the parish and having been previously granted poor relief.

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.

For an example of an examination see Settlement Examinations in England and Wales and for an example of a Removal Order see Removal Orders in England and Wales.

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.

Emigration lists

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 titles, and the terminology itself may vary from parish to parish. The more common titles 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.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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