English poor

This guide was last updated in 2014

Sixties icon Twiggy came from an ‘ordinary’ working-class family and was shocked to discover the devastating effect that poverty had on her paternal grandmother’s parents. Here, Laura Berry explains how to start looking for more information about ancestors on the breadline.

Prior to the establishment of the Welfare State and improvements in employment laws, thousands of people in the lower working classes lived at subsistence level, struggling to make ends meet and in constant fear of destitution.

One of the prime causes of poverty was low wages, and many were at the mercy of seasonal work. Women expected to be paid less than their male counterparts, and illness or the loss of the principal breadwinner could be disastrous for a family. The poor relief system assisted some people through the worst months of the year, whilst others turned to a life of petty crime as a means of topping up meagre earnings.

Many were caught, of course, and so the lives of poor people can be tracked through police and criminal records, as well as Poor Law records and the archives of various institutions that tried to help them.

Further research
previous Step
Unemployment and vagrancy
next Step
We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here