England Overseers of the Poor and Board of Guardians (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 ($).

Poor Law Administration

Perhaps the most fruitful hunting ground for genealogists because of the wealth of relationships and family history to be found in these records, where they still survive.

Overseers and Guardians

The position of administering the Poor Law was undertaken in rotation by worthy men in the parish, anyone refusing to serve being fined. The Overseer of the Poor, at first called the Collector of the Poor and sometimes the Distributor, was chosen annually in the spring by the township or parish vestry from amongst their number, and in larger parishes two would be appointed. The names would then be approved by the Justices of the Peace. It was an often onerous position, but regarded as somewhat of an honour to be chosen, even though it was unpaid and with no recompense for lost wages. Overseers were therefore chosen from amongst the middle-aged yeoman, husbandmen and craftsmen, rather than from younger men or the less well-off cottagers or labourers. The individual was empowered to raise a rate or assessment to cover the needs of the poor, and had to justify his expenses by submitting his account at the end of his term, even being held responsible for costs unauthorized by the vestry.

Overseers of the Poor were first seen during the reign of Elizabeth I and continued until the New Poor Law in 1834 when they were replaced by Boards of Guardians. Upon the overseer fell the responsibility of deciding who needed assistance and balancing this against the ratepayers’ ability and willingness to pay. It was essentially a full time occupation as can be seen from the amount of paperwork generated and the amount of interviews and travel involved.

From 1834 the new Workhouse Guardians administered the system and a similar set of records were kept as had been by the Overseers of the Poor:

Note that the records of parishes which joined the voluntary Gilbert Unions between 1782 and 1834 may well be held with the post-1834 Poor Law Unions rather than with the parish chest material for that parish. It thus behooves the researcher to find out the history of his parish’s union involvement, and to search both groups of records - parish and union - for this middle period.

The Jeremy Gibson Guides Poor Law Union Records #s 1-3 present a summary of the extant Poor Law Union records 1834-1948 arranged by county and union, and giving the present location in England of the records. The list of record types and sketch maps of unions in each county are particularly handy. More detailed lists can be found in the holdings lists published by the county archives themselves. These should both be used in conjunction with the FamilySearch Catalog, so that those records that are extant but not yet filmed can be located. Gibson Guide #4 has been superceded by the author’s Parishes and Registration Districts in England and Wales. It should be noted that only the union records are covered by these Gibson Guides, not the former parish records.

Poor Rates

The Poor Rate was the main tax on the parishioners for the support of the less fortunate in their parish or, after 1834, in their union. In early times there were several small rates to pay for various expenditures, but for efficiency they were later amalgamated into the general Poor Rate. This took place in a number of ways and at different times in different places. Poor Rates continued to be collected by the parish after 1834 but handed over to the new Union Boards of Guardians. In 1862 unions started collecting their own rates, and in 1867 payment of rates within each Poor Law Union was equalized, with London adopting a common fund in 1865.

Poor Rates were levied annually, and sometimes more often. Some records, naming householders and the rate they paid, survive from the Old Poor Law but most extant records are from the New Poor Law period post-1834, when both owners and occupiers are listed. The values of land and property expressed on these lists should not be viewed as accurate, since there was a natural tendency to undervalue for tax purposes. However, the relative value compared with other inhabitants of the parish is probably a better measure of their standing in the community.

An example from a Poor Rate book is shown below.

Poor Rate Book of Wippingham, Isle of Wight, Hampshire 1845 FHL film 1526198 items 1-14 The parishioners of Whippingham paid poor rates quarterly and for the 2nd quarter of 1845 the highest amount paid was £19-5-11 by Queen Victoria for her land and buildings. Others paid from a few shillings to a few pounds. The books are very wide with columns for the owner, occupier, name and type of the property and acreage of land as well as the various calculations.

AN ASSESSMENT for the necessary Relief of the Poor, and for the other Purposes in the Several Acts of Parliament mentioned, relating to the Poor of the Parish of Whippingham in the Isle of Wight made and assessed the 25th day of July 1845 being the Second Quarter Rate at Seven Pence in the Pound, for the present year 1845.
John Roach (1 only signed Church wardens
Wm Suguitt (?), John Roberton Overseers of the Poor
C. Whitmarch ast.
Occupier Owner Property
H.M. Queen Victoria H.M. Queen Victoria Osborne House and land, Newbarn (140 acres), Osborne Coppice (90 acres), Barton Farm and Coppice (420 acres).
Auldje, Messrs Messrs Auldje Store in East Cowes
Barrington, Miss Miss Barrington House (milliners) and Land (6 acres 2 roods)
Bouverie, Revd Revd Bouverie House (Whippingham rectory) and 35 acres land
Bull, William Henry Dashwood House in Shamblers
Dashwood, James James Hunt House in East Cowes
Dashwood, Henry Henry Dash House in Whippingham

Overseers Accounts

These record payments made to and for the poor and always make fascinating reading; a selection of interesting items from West Stour, Dorset is found below. After that is one from Ashburton, Devon.

Overseers of the Poor Accounts West Stour, Dorset (from Bricknell)

1722 Paid the dokter for bleding of Elizabeth HANN twise. 5s
1773 Gave Richard GERRARD to buy toe for his wound. 1s.6d
1774 Paid the Wendow money for Old Kileme 11 ½d
1774 Paid for 6 penneth of save for Ann DEMER 6d
1775 Paid for a Spening turn for Weddow Burdon 3s.6d
1775 Paid for hancheff for Elizabeth HANN -
1779 To Robert GRAY for John PARSONS who died of the small Pox £1
1780 Paide for widow BURDIN dater for the Evil 2s.6d
1784 The expences of Phillip RIDOUT funral And the arter daved 4s
1787 Paid for bottiming the parish chair 1s
1803 Paid Martha STREET for Nurse tending Ann CLOFF and Others in the Smallpox Month £1.8s
1804 Su PARSONS to buy Oppoleldock 2s.6d
1819 Paid for a step ladder for Josh HANNS family in the Poor House 10s.6d
1820 Mr. HURDS Bill for nockleding of Poor for the cowpox £2.4s


  • Arter daved is phonetic spelling for affidavit (for burial in woollen)
  • Bleding (Bleeding) by using leeches was an old remedy.
  • Hancheff was a handkerchief.
  • Nockleding was an attempt to spell innoculating.
  • Oppoleldock was a herb remedy.
  • Save was ointment or salve.
  • Spening turn was probably a spinning wheel.
  • Stepladder—why this was needed is beyond me!
  • The (King’s) Evil was scrofula, and Widow Burden’s daughter needed to pay for a certificate to allow the King’s touch.
  • Toe was a kind of poultice.
  • Window Money was a tax based on the number of windows in your house.

Overseers Application Books Ashburton, Devon (from Church 2002)
Seems to be a combination of minutes and accounts.

1798 Ordered that Roger Glanville be commanded to bring the Fire Ladders and Fire Crooks to the side of the shambles and hang them up there, as in former times, and not let them be taken off but in case of Fire or by Consent of the Overseers. [The parish had had a perpetual problem with borrowing of the Fire Ladders]
1799 Sarah Clarke ticket for one child to be inoculated. John Trott 2 children inoculated.
1805 Rd Halse’s wife applied to have one of the Orphans of T. Carlile Bound an Apprentice to her Husband, granted Richard aged 11.
1819 Ordered Mr Chapple be paid for Instructing Rob Jewell in Musick. £5.5s
1809 At this Meeting it was ordered that the Poor in the House, as an Encouragement for Working, be allowed one half of their earnings, Receiving only the Accustomed Daily Allowance of Food.
1809 Ordered that a Tryal be made to get Sil. Mann’s Son into the Bristol Asylum for Indigent Blind
1817 Resolved that the several shoemakers that have applied this day for relief for want of labour be employed to make the shoes for the Poor the ensuing Month.
1817 A weekly allowance of one shilling be paid to Mr Bidlake for doing the office of Schoolmaster to the Children and reading daily prayers to the Poor

The alert family historian will quickly pick up the clues in such records such as payments for medicines, doctors, midwife, doctor and coffins; overseers expenses going to the town where the sessions were held to contest a removal order or ‘father a child’ (not what it appears to be in today’s terminology!); or visiting a former parishioner in another parish. It was not only the truly poor who availed themselves of relief, as even prosperous tradesmen may be seen in the records because of illness, accidents, alcoholism or sheer bad luck; both the responsible and the feckless could be struck. References to a pauper family may be found in their parish of residence but are more likely to be discovered in their parish of legal settlement.

Billing to Parish of Settlement

Overseers, and later guardians, were keen to recoup expenses for any non-settled inhabitant in their parish. Researchers should always consider where an ancestor is legally settled at each stage of his life so that parish chest records of appropriate parishes may be checked. For example, if he dies far away from a former residence is there a record of him being transported back there for burial, or was he buried where he died but at the expense of his parish of settlement?

Halifax Account for Leeds Expenses 1817 FHL film 1551143
Expenses for individuals only included, not totals and receipts.

Name #wks From To Per Week Total

£ s d
John Batty 26 Mar 26 Sep24 2/- 2 1
Jas Crowther 4 DO Apr 25 4/6
DO Coffin, Grave and Dues 1 2 6
Mary Denton 26 Mar 26 Sep24 2/6 3 5 0
George Fenn 18 DO Jul 30 4/- 3 1
Thos Gledhill 26 DO Sep 24 2/- 2 1
Hannah Gledhill 18 DO Jul 30 2/6 2 5 0
DO Cloths out of Bond 1 2 6
DO Gifts 1
6 1/2
DO Do Marriage and Certificate to Tideswell of Evenden 4 6
Wm Giles Widow 26 Mar 26 24 Sept 2/- 2 1
Ellen Hoyle 22 Feb 26 Jul 30 2/- 2 4 0
Francis Barker 12 Mar 26 Jun 18 4/5 2 1
Elizabeth Johnson 8 DO May 21 6/- 2 8 0
[DO] Coffin and Dues

John Wilkinson
22 Mar 26 Aug 27 5/- 5 1
Saml Wilkinson 26 DO Sep 24 3/- 3 1
John Wilkinson
26 DO DO 3/- 3 1
Willm Wood 13 DO Jun 25 6/- 3 1

Halifax Invoice to Leeds for Payment of Pauper’s expenses 1817 FHL film 1551143
This covers the succeeding period to that in the previous chart.

West Riding of Yorkshire: THE Church-Wardens and Overseers of the Poor ofLeeds [owe]
To the Church-Wardens and Overseers of the Poor of Halifax Dr. For Money paid as per Order, to your Pauper.
Name # Wks From To Per Week Total

£ s d
To Balance of Account 2
John Batty 16 Sep 24 1817 Jan 14 1818 2/- 1 1
Mary Denton 16 DO DO 2/6 2 0 0
Thos Gledhill 16 DO DO 2/- 1 1
Coffin, Grave etc.
1 2 0
Wm Giles 8 DO Nov 19 1817 2/-
DO 8 Nov 19 1817 Jan 24 1818 3/- 1 4 0
DO Shoes
6 0
Ellen Hoyle 20 Jul 30 1817 Dec 17 1817 2/- 2 0 0
John Wilkinson
22 Aug 27 1817 Jan 28 1818 5/- 5 1
John Wilkinson
16 Sep 24 1817 Jan 14 1818 3/- 5 1
Saml Wilkinson 6 DO Nov 5 1817 3/-

5 6

Attention being paid to the Settlement of the above, will much oblige the Gentlemen of Halifax, for whom
    I am,
                 Your obedient Servant
                                                 John Casson
Halifax Workhouse
April 10th 1818

Workhouse Out-Relief Accounts

Extracts from the Overseers Out-Relief Book for Halifax, Yorkshire are given below. Further down is one from the Parish Relief Book for Aldenham, Hertfordshire.

Out-Relief in Halifax 1823 (Extract from Accounts for Regular Poor) FHL film 1551143

Names Remarks Apr May

9 23 7 21
Farrar, Jno and Wife Waterside 6/- 6/- 6/- 6/-
Foster, Jas and Wife Clayton

Frankleton, Thos Bowling Dyke 3/- 3/- 3/- 3/-
Farrar, Charlotte Royton 8/- 8/- 8/- 8/-
Foster, Jno Widow Gildersome

Gaukroger, Widow and
Child 6 yrs 5 mths
Wike with Robt Pearson

Gath, Josa, Widow and
Cold Edge

Gaukroger, Betty Child Crompton

Gaukroger, Wm Widow Woolshop 3/- 3/- 3/- 3/-
Gibson, Susan (blind) Cross Field 5/- 5/- 5/- 5/-
Green, George Manchester

Gledhill Stepn Widow Honley

Gaukroger, Jas Widow and
2 Children
Bevey Land

Gaukroger, Betty Cross Field 26 wks 19/6
Holroyd, Jno Widow

Aldenham, Herts Parish Relief Book 1829-35
                         Summaries from a wide book with many columns.
LH pages have columns for Cause of Relief, Age, Number of children under 10 years old, Places of residence, Whether field or woodland, Names and some descriptions.
RH pages have narrow columns for weekly payments, but years are not specified.

Old Age, 75 and 74, Hog’s Lane, wood, Kirby and wife, 5/- weekly from 30 Mar to 1 Feb.
Old Age, no age given, Alms Houses with her husband, field, A. Larkins, 2/- weekly from 30 Mar to 8 Feb.
Illness, 42 and 43, 4 children, Little Bushey, wood,Jno Lumm and family, 10/- weekly from 30 Mar to 1 Feb.
Old Age and Infirmity, Lechmere Heath, field,Mary Mansell widow, weekly from 30 Mar to 8 Feb.
Old Age and Infirmity, Caldicot Hill, wood, Widow Montague, 3/- weekly from 30 Mar to 6 Jul ‘since then in Workhouse’.
Nurse child, his wife dead, 3 children, Abbots Langley, field, Stephen Malbrow, 5/- weekly from 30 Mar to 18 May, then 4/- to 5 Oct, then 2/6 until 8 Feb.
Old Age, Alms Houses, field, S. Nicholls, 2/- weekly from 30 Mar to 8 Feb
Bastard, 10, Caldicot Hill, wood, Newton’s child (bastard), 2/- weekly from 30 Mar to 6 Jul, then 1/6 until 8 Feb.
Old Age and Infirmity, 74 and 62, no place noted, Newton and Wife, 4/- weekly from 12 Oct to 1 Feb.

Guardians Accounts and General Ledgers

These records of expenditures are often available and can be quite voluminous.


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.