In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act established the Victorian workhouse system. Huge pioneering buildings were erected to cope with vast numbers of poor within each of the new Poor Law Unions under the watchful eyes of local Boards of Guardians. Prior to this, Poor Law Acts since Elizabethan times had put an emphasis on parish officials, or Overseers of the Poor, to provide for the needy. The Poor Law Amendment Act aimed to discourage ‘idleness’ by creating a system where paupers would have to live in the workhouse, rather than receiving relief in their homes, and where living conditions in workhouses were so unpleasant that paupers would only move there if they were truly in need.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, many working class people were forced to seek shelter in the workhouse when unemployment, disability or illness meant they had no other options. In family history research, you may find an ancestor listed as living in the workhouse on a census record, or a record showing that they were born or died in the workhouse. Fortunately, with a bit of work it’s possible to track down the workhouse records to find out more about their lives.
Where can I find workhouse records?
Few workhouse records are online, so the best place to start is often the County Record Office local to the institution. You will need to know roughly when your ancestor was in the workhouse and, if it was after 1834, which Poor Law Union their parish belonged to.
The Workhouse website is the best place to go online to find out about the history of a particular workhouse or Poor Law Union, with plenty of pictures and old maps. It also has some information about the workhouse record holdings for particular institutions.
Those Poor Law documents that have been digitised will mostly be found amongst large regional collections on family history websites. For example, Ancestry has online collections from the London Metropolitan Archives, including London workhouse records. It also has collections for Warwickshire, Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Cardiff.
Findmypast has also put workhouse records online for Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Manchester, Bury, Withington, Monmouth and Pontypool.
Discovery, The National Archives’ searchable database for local archive records in England and Wales, is useful for finding the location of workhouse records that have not been scanned – search for the name of the workhouse or Poor Law Union.
Remember, a death certificate revealing that an ancestor died in a workhouse from the late 19th century might not mean they were in dire poverty, as by then infirmaries attached to workhouses offered the best form of free medical care. Infirmary registers are usually kept separately to workhouse admission registers. Use the Hospital Records Database to find workhouse infirmary records.
Types of workhouse record
Workhouses maintained various sets of registers to keep track of inmates. Admission and discharge registers and ‘day books’ are among the most common workhouse records. They’re usually arranged chronologically, listing the names and biographical details about people arriving and leaving the workhouse.
Many paupers ended their days inside, so deaths are commonly noted in these workhouse records. Creed registers recorded an inmate’s religion, but can often provide just as much information as an admission register.
The Poor Law authorities had the right to refuse relief to people who could not prove that the parish or Union was their legal place of settlement, and could pay to transport the pauper and their family to wherever they were legally deemed to belong. The criteria for legal settlement changed with various amendments to the Acts, but often paupers were removed to the parish where they or their parents were born or formerly lived. You will sometimes see Settlement Certificates, Examinations and Removal Orders among workhouse records.
Children born out of wedlock were a particular drain on parish resources, since any child born in the parish might legally be entitled to settlement there. As a consequence, it was not unheard of for officials to forcibly move heavily pregnant women on with a Removal Order.
From the 16th century, parish officials could hold Bastardy Examinations, interviewing the mother of an illegitimate baby to ascertain the identity of the father.
Men were obliged to sign a Bastardy Bond agreeing to pay the parish for the child’s maintenance, and court records may be found amongst Quarter Sessions and Petty Sessions, particularly when fathers attempted to evade the authorities.
If your ancestor was born or died in the workhouse then their name may have been entered in the institution’s baptism or burial register. TheGenealogist has transcripts from a selection of parishes, including entries from workhouse records. Most people who died in a workhouse were buried in an unmarked ‘paupers’ grave’, so finding an exact burial plot will be difficult.
Children in the workhouse who survived the first years of infancy may have been sent out to schools run by the Poor Law Union, and apprenticeships were often arranged for teenage boys so they could learn a trade and become less of a burden to the rate payers. Some County Record Offices have catalogued apprenticeship records and Bastardy Bonds by name on Discovery.