England Poor Law 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 ($).


There is no single guide that describes the contents of all records that give information about individual recipients of poor assistance. This is partly because they were created at four different jurisdictional levels—national, county, union and parish. The researcher needs to consider each group of records separately, and an overview is presented in this chapter, with details and examples of documents likely to be found in the parish chest forming the bulk of later chapters. It must be recognized that titles and contents of records varied with time and place, and this text can only cover the main items of most interest.

What will these documents tell you?

Parish chest records significantly augment the bare records ascertained from civil registration, census, and parish registers but should of course be used together with them.

  • Ÿ Relationships—between family members, and also between families and places.
  • Ÿ Details of houses occupied, their relative value and rates paid.
  • Ÿ Wife and children’s names, often indicating new additions and losses to the family.
  • Ÿ Level of subsistence and relative position in parish society.
  • Ÿ Illness and accidents and how the family coped.
  • Ÿ When he moved and sometimes where.
  • Ÿ What he did for a living, including specific projects he was involved with.
  • Ÿ His activities on a certain day or period of time, sometimes what he actually said.
  • Ÿ Differentiate families by occupation, residence, widowhood etc.
  • Ÿ Some idea of his character and habits—did he worthily participate in local affairs or was he frequently in trouble?

The duties of parish officers varied considerably from parish to parish, and what was undertaken by the churchwardens in one place may equally well have been accomplished, and thus recorded, by the overseers in another. The purely ecclesiastical matters obviously stayed in church hands, but there was a gradual change from ecclesiastical to civil responsibility in social welfare and legal matters and hence the records are more and more found with civil authorities over time. There were variations in the way rural and town/ borough jurisdictions were run as well, so the researcher has to be prepared to search all surviving classes in order to find appropriate documents.

Location of the records is not always straightforward for those working in England, particularly in greater London. Not everything survives, of-course, and some of the bulkier material, such as land tax records, have been selectively weeded by previous administrations for lack of storage space. Most national records are at the Public Record Office, most county, union and parish ones are in county archives, but parish records may have been hived off to local archives for convenience of access for present inhabitants and to ease storage space problems. For those working through FamilySearch Centres it is far easier to find things as they are listed in the FamilySearch Catalog in the place that made them; the drawback is that not everything has yet been filmed. However, as permission is obtained then a selection of the most valuable sources is made and filming is proceeding actively.

Where the original records have been filmed, but not an index, which is frequently the case, it is worth enquiring of the County archives if there is one there. Many published and unpublished indexes exist that have not yet been filmed, and they can save many hours work at the film reader.

Good General References

  • ŸI. Anstruther in The Scandal of the Andover Workhouse deals with a particularly harsh workhouse at Andover, where half-starved residents were found eating the marrows of bones they were supposed to be crushing for fertilizer.
  • ŸMichael Burchall in The Poor and the Poor Laws pages 81-98 in Family History Annual discusses the historical context of the Old and New Poor Laws, giving statistics and several references for Poor Law history.
  • Ÿ Anne Cole, Poor Law Documents before 1834, has written on Old Poor Law documents with a host ofinteresting examples and illustrations.
  • ŸJean Cole and John Titford in Poor Law Documents before 1834 with their usual good examples and illustrations.
  • ŸJeremy Gibson et al. Poor Law Union Records Volumes 1-3 have a good list of types of national and union New Poor Law records plus sketch maps of counties showing the unions, and a list of historical references.
  • ŸMark Herber, Ancestral Trails, has many good examples and illustrations of documents.
  • David Hey, The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History, for definitions, descriptions, and excellent surveys of major themes.
  • ŸTrevor May produced a copiously illustrated Shire book on Victorian workhouses, The Victorian Workhouse, which is an excellent value.
  • ŸEve McLaughlin’s 1994 booklet, The Poor are Always with Us, is a very readable account of conditions endured by the poor with lots of clues for ancestor hunters.
  • W. E. Tate, The Parish Chest. A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England, which is the classic with so many fascinating details and examples but written in the old rambling style and difficult to find things quickly.
  • ŸDavid Hey recommends David Vincent’s 1991 book, Poor Citizens: The State and the Poor in Twentieth Century Britain for a general overview of the 20th century state of the poor.
  • The novels of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, who both wrote during the 19th century, are excellent sources of realistic application of the Poor Laws. After studying this text you will view the movies of these authors’ works with new understanding; Oliver Twist, for example, was published in 1837, 3 years after the introduction of the New Poor Law.
  • This internet site is an astonishingly comprehensive, award-winning collection of history, maps, photographs ancient and modern, pictures of documents, and memories of workhouses put together by Peter Higginbotham. An absolute must-see—you’ll spend hours here!
  • ŸOther internet sites of value for paupers in Britain are reviewed by Cavell, and there is a special seven-page section on various records of the poor for Somerset and Dorset in Greenwood Tree Vol 22 #1.

National Poor Law Records

Eden conducted an enquiry into the State of the Poor and his report (1797) contains descriptions of a selection of workhouses throughout England. Parliamentary papers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries give many details of local expenditures on the poor mentioning individuals by name (see David Hey). After 1834 national sources include:

  • ŸAnnual Reports of the Poor Law Commission (1835-1847), the Poor Law Board (1848-1871) and the Local Government Board (from 1872).
  • ŸAnnual Returns of Poor Rates, Relief and Paupers.
  • ŸReports of the Royal Commissions of 1895 and 1909-1910.

Even though they do contain information about individuals, all of these are laborious to access since they are unindexed.

16,741 volumes of correspondence between the Poor Law Commissioners (and their successors) and individual unions is in the series MH 12 at the Public Record Office. It is arranged by county and union but unindexed by personal names; see PRO leaflet D71 for details, and O’Sullivan for a review of the contents, including methods of sending children to Canada. The correspondence dates from 1834 to 1900 as the later material was destroyed in the Blitz, and is mainly about policy and conditions, but there are some references to particular paupers. For some unions whose own records are missing these correspondence files are the only ones available. Amongst these papers are found lists of people vaccinated for smallpox, those given money to emigrate, the occasional letter from an individual pauper, and care of individual pauper lunatics, as well as applications for employment with the union as masters, teachers, medical officers etc. Pauper emigrants also feature in classes MH 19/22 and MH 64. Staff records can be found in MH 9.

County Poor Law Records

The records of the county Clerks of the Peace, who were lawyers, of relevance to the poor include:

  • ŸOrder Books containing formal records of Justices decisions, verdicts, and sentences.
  • ŸQuarter Sessions Minute Books containing notes of proceedings including appointments, depositions, recognizances for bastards and other cases, and all kinds of dispute resolutions.
  • ŸSession Rolls or Files containing the records used during the Quarter Sessions.

The four sessions held each year were at Epiphany (January), Easter (April), Midsummer (July), and Michaelmas (October). It is easier to first search the minute books and then to check the files for supporting documents. Any contemporary indexes should not be taken as complete since they typically only listed the accused but not the plaintiffs, for example a reputed father of a bastard (whose name you may not already know) may be indexed but not the mother’s or child’s name (which you do).

A major portion of the Quarter Sessions records concern the Poor Law as they dealt with complaints from aggrieved parties and judged settlement disputes between contending parishes. Up to a half of the business at a session might be decisions on appeals by paupers against removal to another parish. The JPs signed innumerable orders regarding vagrancy, bastardy, apprenticeship, and settlement, examples of which are shown below, as well as making criminal indictments recorded in their various books.

Most bastardy cases were referred automatically to a magistrate at either Petty Sessions where they were held or, if they weren’t, at Quarter Sessions. Removals, however, will only be in these records where they were contested. Anne Cole in Poor Law Documents before 1834. quotes many interesting cases.

Other items found more usually in Quarter Sessions than in parish chests were:

  • ŸMaintenance orders in which more affluent relatives were ordered to help support indigent relations.
  • ŸProperty auctions where a deceased pauper’s effects, often only a few dishes, some old clothes and a couple of pieces of furniture, were sold to partially recoup the parish’s costs for their maintenance whilst alive.
  • ŸPetitions from persons who had perhaps suffered disasters and wanted a license to beg; or from apprentices cruelly treated by their masters; or alternatively masters who had an incorrigible apprentice from whom they wished to be released.

Many of these sessions books and files have been published by county record societies and the originals and some indexes are on film. Examples include Norfolk 1650-1791 on 3 films (1595634), Worcestershire 1693-1955 on 39 films (0435298), Newcastle upon Tyne 1743-1802 on 2 films (1886204), and Middlesex 1609-1751 on 8 films (1612380).

Union Poor Law Records

The Boards of Guardians were elected by local ratepayers, and usually comprised local gentry and small businessmen, as well as the ex-officio magistrates. They were generally rather more concerned with keeping costs down than with improving conditions in the workhouse. When women started to be elected in the 1880s, and working-class men in the 1892, more common sense and humanitarian conditions were introduced.

The guardians weekly meetings discussed individual paupers’ admissions, discharges and punishments. Committees were set up, each with its own set of minutes, for different aspects of the work such as finance, dispensary, boarding out [supervision of children placed with local families], house [supervising the workhouse], stores, general purpose and women.

Parish Poor Law Records

The bulk of the material concerning average paupers was in the parish chest, and hence now in county archives, much of it filmed. The major topics are vestry, churchwardens, charities, constables, settlement and removal, vagrants, bastardy, apprentices and operation of the workhouse. Items called rates and vouchers are records of collection of monies, and those called accounts or disbursements are the expenditures of those monies.

In the census, occupants of the workhouse were listed in special institutional schedules. Typically the first page showed the master, mistress and paid staff, with further pages devoted to long lists of inmates, divided into men, women and children and often alphabetized, concluding with the tramps in the itinerant ward just staying for one night. Masters of certain institutions such as mental asylums and workhouses had the option of simply recording the initials for paupers, to lessen social stigma, but in my experience most record both full names. Workhouse schools and infirmaries may be housed in different buildings, but they and county lunatic asylums and almshouses will all appear on the census returns.


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.