Family breakdown

Extreme poverty was cyclical – a married man’s wages were spread thinly when he had lots of young children to feed.

As children grew older they could be put to work to top up the family income, but as they flew the nest and their parents aged, household earnings again dropped.

Dire poverty did not create a promising environment for a stable family life. Some spouses, including Twiggy’s great grandfather, couldn’t manage when the going got tough and abandoned the family. The authorities sought out parents who absconded, and ‘wanted’ notices were published in The Poor Law Union Gazette and Poor Man’s Guardian. Some editions have been scanned at

Occasionally older children brought up their younger orphaned siblings, and signs of this may be found on the census or in school records where a guardian is named. School papers may also hint at trouble within a family or children who could not afford shoes or food. Most are deposited at local archives but a collection of National School Registers are online here.

Children were frequently admitted to the workhouse without their parents, and if it appeared to be a long-term placement the Board of Guardians may have farmed them out to a children’s home or industrial school. A note that the child was transferred should be found in the workhouse records. The Former Children’s Homes website is an encyclopaedia of homes, orphanages and reformatories and also provides a wealth of information.

Teenagers could be sent to an employer to learn a trade. Some people succeeded in turning around their fortunes this way and building a better life for the next generation. In addition to searching the Board of Guardians’ and apprenticeship records held in local archives, consult The National Archives’ guide here.

Illness and untimely deaths
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