England Finding Poor Law and Parish Chest Records (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

How To Find Poor Law And Parish Chest Materials

The originals, where they survive, are now mainly in the county record offices or archives, but some are in libraries, and later material may be in the hands of the parochial church council. The county archives will know the locations of material relevant to their area if they don’t already house it. Survival rates vary considerably thus study of relevant holdings catalogues is essential. Much of this material has been microfilmed and is available at any FamilySearch Centre. It can be found under POORHOUSES, POOR LAW ETC. in either COUNTY or PARISH section, as shown below .

County and Union Poor Law Records

Fhlc - England - Kent - Poorhouses, Poor law etc.

  • Bastardy returns and vagrants passes for Kent, 1707-1858 / Court of Quarter Sessions of the Peace
  • Ÿ Kent Quarter Sessions papers, 1640-1883
  • Ÿ Kent settlement (poor law) records : a guide and catalogue / Rickard, Gillian
  • Ÿ Money or blood : the 1835 anti-poor law disturbances in the Swale villages / Hopker, David
  • Ÿ Poor law and order: Westbere and Sturry, 1700-50 / Coton, Betty
  • Ÿ Settlement records and bastardy examinations for the liberty of Romney Marsh, 1779-1847 / Court of Quarter Sessions of the Peace (Kent)
  • Ÿ Divisional petty sessions papers and petty sessions minute book, 1747-1831 / Court of Petty Sessions (Bromley, Kent)

Fhlc - England - Sussex- Poorhouses, Poor law, etc.

  • Ÿ Easebourne workhouse records, 1835-1914 Midhurst Union, Sussex
  • Ÿ East Preston workhouse records, 1869-1914 East Preston Union, Sussex
  • Ÿ Eastern Sussex settlement certificates, 1670-1832 Burchall, M. J.
  • Ÿ Eastern Sussex workhouse census, 1851 Burchall, M. J.
  • Ÿ Finding aids East Sussex Record Office
  • Ÿ Petworth workhouse records, 1866-1926 Petworth Union, Sussex
  • Ÿ Settlement papers (Sussex)
  • Ÿ Thakeham Union records 1847-1848 Thakeham Union, Sussex
  • Ÿ Thakeham workhouse records, 1866-1936 Thakeham Union, Sussex
  • Ÿ Workhouse admissions and discharges, 1835-1901 Midhurst Union, Sussex

Parish Poor Law Records

Fhlc - England - Kent - Tunbridge - Poorhouses, Poor Law etc.
                                        Parish Chest Records 1580-1930 (39 films)

                                                          [Summary of listings]

Almshouse Account Book
Apprenticeship Papers
1589, 1637-1769
Bastardy Bonds
1580-1, 1635-1751, 1768, 1819, 1821
Churchwardens Accounts
1698-1713, 1728-1821
Churchwardens Accounts for St. Stephens parish, Tonbridge
Churchwardens Petition
Gaol Rates
Lighting Rates
Militia Papers
1806-1808, 1810, 1812, 1817-1819
Miscellaneous Papers
1708, 1714, 1812-1820, 1822
Overseers Accounts
Overseers Rates
1761, 1765-1783, 1786-1795, 1797-1806, 1809-1865, 1867, 1885-1894
Overseers Rates Hildenborough
Overseers Rates, Southborough 1800, 1820-1823
Overseers Vouchers 1762-1820
Payment Book of nurses and doctors for illegitimate children 1821-1836
Respits of Poor Rate 1823-1831
Settlement Papers 1640, 1667-1822
Survey of Land and Buildings 1809
Surveyors Accounts 1763-1770, 1777, 1780-1820, 1838, 1851-1854, 1861-1862
Surveyors Rates 1809-1862
Vestry Minute Book 1734-1890
Vestry Papers 1825-1835
Workhouse Admission and Discharges 1835-1901
Workhouse Births 1835-1913
Workhouse Religious Creed Registers 1873-1903
Workhouse Death Register 1835-1907

Fhlc - England - Sussex - Hurstperpoint - Poorhouses, Poor Law etc.
                                     Parish Chest Records 1698-1844 (7 films)

                                                         [Summary of listings]

Item Dates
Apprenticeship 1700-1844
Bastardy examinations 1713-1827
Defence Act papers 1803-1824
Examinations 1728-1823
Highway Rates 1836-1844
Militia and Navy Papers 1788-1797, 1807-1825
Miscellaneous 1709-1840
Poor Rates 1711-1835, 1839-1840, 1842
Population census 1811-1831
Removal Orders from parish 1728-1824
Removal Orders to parish 1718-1838
Settlement Papers 1698-1793, 1820-1
Summons to Overseers 1790-1800

It is essential to check both COUNTY and PARISH listings; Essex poor law records, for example, are notoriously sparse and very little can be found under many parish listings, but there are 40 films of removal orders and settlements 1651-1874 listed under the county of Essex starting at FHL film 0853328.

There are three huge collections of Westminster, Middlesex parishes parish chest material on film which really give an idea of what is available in archives for hundreds of parishes, but may not yet be filmed. I recommend that you study the FamilySearch Catalog lists of these collections to appreciate the wealth of material still in existence. The first is for St. Clement Danes with 66 films of material covering 1557-1900 starting at FHL film 1519199. Another is St. Martin-in-the-Fields with 373 films of records for 1599-1861 starting at FHL film1701795; there are 33 other films as well, and these do not include the vast settlement records that are currently being indexed at the Westminster archives. The third is the incredible collection for St. Margaret on 595 films starting at FHL film 1594509.

Indexes to Poor Law Records

Indexes of Poor Law Records are sometimes available, some prepared by archives and private individuals, but mostly done by and available from the local Family History Society, who should be consulted for purchase or look-ups (see Perkins two volumes, and Gibson and Hampson). Archives are usually aware of those available or in preparation. Few of these are yet microfilmed as they are used to produce revenue to finance new local indexing projects. One of the first countywide ones was by Bedfordshire FHS.

Extract from Bedfordshire Poor Law Index 1622-1834

Bedford St. Paul
BRIANT, Mary and Child 1772 Removed to Tackley, Oxon
BRIGG(S), Theophilus 1777 Examination

BRICKETT, John and wife 1719 Misc, Dunstable mentioned

BRIGETT, Alice 1754 Bastardy
Eaton Socon

BRIARS, Edward 1726 Apprenticeship
BRIDGES, John and Sarah 1768 Indemnity, St. Neots, Hunts
BRIGG(S),George and Elizabeth 1830 Removed from Leighton Buzzard

BRICHENO, William 1803 Militia

Other published Poor Law indexes include:

  • A long list by East Surrey FHS (which covers populous south London), for example Tooting settlement examinations, Mitcham removal orders and Battersea apprenticeships (Webb 1991).
  • A CD-ROM for the West Surrey ones (Holland, Webb 2001).
  • Four microfiche set produced for Essex.
  • Rickard runs an index of settlement indexes for East and West Kent which include both parish and county (but not union) sources and has published guides/catalogues to the records.
  • The Friends of the City of Westminster Archives are indexing the 30,000 18th century St. Martins-in-the-Fields settlement examinations and the first set 1770-1775 are now available on fiche (see archives web site).
  • Jean Cole (of Family Tree magazine) is indexing 40,000 Vagrants Passes 1702-1859 at the Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office.
  • The Sussex Record Society have recently published Mid-Sussex Poor Law Records 1601-1835 which indexes persons and places in 443 pages.

The above are just a sampling of what is available.

Workhouse Museums

There are at least two old workhouses that have been restored to original conditions and opened as museums:

  • Ripon Workhouse, Allhallowgate, North Yorkshire HG4 1LE has a restored vagrants ward from 1877 and a Victorian ‘Hard Times’ gallery.
  • Southwell Workhouse, Upton Road, Southwell, Nottinghamshire NG25 0PT, built in 1824. Contact The National Trust for more information.

Hundreds of others have been converted into hospitals, hotels, shops, libraries, commercial sites and schools and are well worth visiting, and you can do it from your armchair at This Website.

Poor Law Employees

Old Poor Law Pre-1834
The office of Overseer of the Poor was created in 1572 and records of annual appointments will be found in the parish poor law records, typically around Easter in the Vestry Minutes, from whatever date they survive for that parish. The system was supervised by the Quarter Sessions, where appointments may also be noted, and individual magistrates, all (probably too) loosely responsible to the Home Office.

Overseer of the Poor was a rotating, usually unpaid office amongst the village worthies such as yeoman, husbandmen and craftsmen, and refusal to serve was followed by a fine. Examples of paid overseers, particularly in parishes where there were few eligible men and the work was onerous, are quoted by Keith-Lucas, who has a good discussion on the duties of Kentish overseers. He or they (larger townships or parishes had two or more overseers), was entitled to raise taxes, called rates or assessments, colloquially the sess or cess, to cover the year’s expenditures and had to submit his accounts at the end of the year for approval by the vestry. He was expected to pay for anything not approved by that meeting.

The job of Overseer of the Poor entailed (Hey):

  • Deciding which paupers deserved financial relief or other help. This was a delicate juggling act between the ratepayers willingness to pay and the mercy needed towards the poor, and mindful of the possibility that an aggrieved pauper could challenge his decision before the Justices of the Peace.
  • Checking on incomers to the parish to see if they were likely to be able to support themselves. This involved conducting settlement examinations and filling out removal orders, including visits to JPs for signatures and the quarter sessions to argue cases.
  • Dealing with illegitimacy by conducting bastardy examinations and going through the legal paperwork involved in apprehending fathers to either marry the girl or pay support.
  • Apprenticing orphans and other poor children to local householders in rotation.
  • Apprehending runaway husbands and fathers. A booklet on advertisements for runaways (apprentices and eloping wives as well as absconding fathers) has been published by Guthrig.
  • Acting as Surveyor of Highways if one was not appointed.
  • Acting as Guardian of the workhouse for those unions of parishes that chose to build workhouses after Gilbert’s enabling act in 1782.

In some of these he was assisted by the parish constable and much of his work involved filling out forms.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Poor Law and Parish Chest Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.