England Poorhouses, Poor Law, etc.

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English poor law resulted from a gradual development of a poor relief or welfare system dating to medieval times[1]. The first laws enacted for dealing with poverty, vagrancy, and economic distress were the Statutes of Labourers of 1349-1351.[2] 

Poor Law Records

Poor Law Records are records created by the process of caring for the poor. This includes records of rates (taxes) collected, as well as disbursements of, application for, and administration of poor relief or welfare. In England, the term poor law records usually applies to records created between the beginning of the English Poor Law Acts around 1600 until the abolishment of the Poor Law system in 1948.

English records relating to the poor fall into three time periods, namely:

  1. Prior to the establishment of the Poor Law System in the late 1500's (acts of 1597, 1598, and 1601)
  2. The Old Poor Law (1600-1834)
  3. The New Poor Law (1834-1948)

Pre-1600 Records of the Poor

Prior to 1600, responsibility for poor relief rested early on with the feudal Lord and later the Manorial Lord. Those who were neither serf nor manorial tenant as well as those travelling relied on the Catholic monasteries for relief from economic distress, temporary disability, or illness while away from family and friends.

The Family History researcher's best hope for finding any mention of a specific person during this time period (other than the nobility and manorial Lords) lies with records of daily life on the Manor. Manorial records mention many of the individual tenants and often give clues to their lives and even family relationships. See England Manorial Records.

King Henry VIII's break with the Pope and the Catholic Church led to the establishment of the Church of England in 1534 and the abolishment of the monasteries by 1538. This led to a shift to the English parish for responsibility for the poor. A system developed for caring for the poor, which was codified with a series of Poor Law Acts of 1597, 1598, and finally the establishment of the Poor Law System in 1601.

The Old Poor Law (1600-1834)

Providing for the poor has long been challenge in England. This responsibility was placed on the parish officials since 1531. In the early days, each parish handled matters as they saw fit, since laws regulating the administration of matter dealing with the poor were not enacted until 1597, 1598, and 1601. This was modified over the years, with Settlement Laws added in 1662. Providing relief for a person in need took time. Monies were collected by an appointed person from those who had land or property in the parish. An amount was assessed according to the amount of said land or property.

Poor Law Records (pre-1834)

Poor law records deal with providing food, shelter, and sometime work for those who had none. Records include settlement certificates, removal orders, workhouse records, minutes of meetings, accounts, rate books, appointment books (of overseers). Some of these records include names, dates, places and ages, while others are merely statistical. For a fuller discussion of the records of this time period, see England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834.

Settlement Laws

Settlement Law was established in 1662, and modified by numerous subsequent acts of Parliament. Generally, before money was given to a person in need, the parish (or civil) overseer determined the parish of settlement. Money was hard to come by, and was only given in cases where it was justified by settlement as well as indigence. The parish of settlement was not always the parish of birth, since there were ways a person could re-establish settlement in another parish. When a woman married, her husband's parish of settlement became her parish of settlement. For more information on settlement, see England and Wales Poor Law Records Pre-1834.

For a list of Acts modifying settlement law and poor law, see www.workhouses.org/ .

The New Poor Law (1834-1948)

Finding Records


Poor law database for Sussex



Workhouse database

A wiki article describing this collection is found at:

England Cheshire Workhouse Records (FamilySearch Historical Records)


  1. Quigley, William P., Five Hundred Years of English Poor Laws, 1349-1834:fckLRRegulating the Working and Nonworking Poor, retrieved on 14 Nov 2011 from https://www.uakron.edu/law/lawreview/v30/docs/quigley.pdf.
  2. Bertha H. Putnam, The Enforcement of the Statute of Labourers During the FirstfckLRDecade After the Black Death. New York, Columbia University:1908. 704 pp. http://www.archive.org/stream/enforcementofsta00putnrich