Poor relief records

If your ancestors experienced poverty at some time, a not uncommon situation for many people, they may well have turned to the state for help and appear in the relevant records.

Poor relief was very different before and after the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. It was administered and paid for by the parish prior to this date, while following the Act, poor law unions were set up to support the poor – creating the dreaded workhouse system.

Pre-1834 records

Poor relief was dealt with at a parish level. Records might give you reasons for your ancestor’s impoverishment – perhaps old age or sickness – and the solutions applied – for example, apprenticing a child to a trade. You might discover exactly how many pairs of shoes or how many blankets were provided by the parish, and to whom; or who required a midwife or doctor, along with the names of everyone involved.

Related documents include certificates of settlement and settlement examinations, relating to the system by which an individual was entitled to relief in the parish in which they were ‘settled’; and bastardy examinations, in which the parish was keen to establish the paternity of a child who might then be compelled to provide them with financial assistance.

Parishioners paid poor rates to fund relief, based upon the value of the property that they owned or leased. You may find the name of your ancestor among these records, pinning them down to a particular parish at a particular time and indicating the type of property they lived in.

Where to find pre-1834 poor relief records

The accounts of churchwardens and overseers of the poor, both of whom distributed aid to those in need, should be housed in the local or county record office. Both the survival and the scope of these records varies from place to place and according to the period you are interested in.

The National Archives holds some records relating to both pre- and post-1834 poor relief.

Post-1834 records

After the amendment Act, parishes no longer provided relief to their poor, but were grouped together in ‘unions’. Each union was to build a workhouse that offered such dreadful conditions that only the desperate would seek to go there. The commission recommended that the poor should only receive help from within the workhouse, but many continued to offer ‘outdoor relief’ – especially in industrial areas.

Where to find post-1834 records

Claims for relief from unions provide a great deal of detailed information. Most poor relief and union records are held at the relevant county’s record office. A treasure trove of information about the workhouse system can be found at www.workhouses.org.uk.

 Early policing was carried out by (often unwilling) parish constables elected by the parish and may include one of your ancestors. Their records were often amalgamated with the poor records, as were others. Check all the poor records for the parish you’re interested in – you never know what you might find!

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