Researching workhouse ancestors

Actor Brian Blessed caught a 'tangible and real' glimpse of his ancestors’ lives through Poor Law records. The tragic discovery that Brian’s 3 x great grandfather was a pauper and his orphaned children were sent to a workhouse miles from home was sadly not unusual.

Who Do You Think You Are?

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.

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Brian Blessed first found out that his ancestors were on the poverty line when shown a copy of a baptism register from 1820 describing the baby’s father, Barnabas Blessed, as a pauper.

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Most of us will discover an ancestor in the workhouse on a census return, or birth or death certificate, however there are plenty more records created by the Poor Law authorities that can help you to investigate further…

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What’s online?

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 Workhouses website www.workhouses.org.uk is the best place to go online to find out about the history of a particular workhouse or Poor Law Union, with plenty of old pictures and maps. It also has some information about the record holdings for particular institutions.

Those Poor Law documents that have been digitised will mostly be found amongst large regional collections on websites like Findmypast.co.uk and Ancestry.co.uk. For example, Ancestry has online collections from the London Metropolitan Archives, including London Poor Law records. It also has similar records for WarwickshireDorset and Norfolk. These cannot be searched by name and need to be browsed by location and date.

Findmypast.co.uk has also put workhouse records online for Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, Manchester, Bury, Withington, Monmouth and Pontypool, which can be found by searching for ‘workhouse’ here.

Discovery 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 records for workhouse infirmaries that became hospitals.

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Workhouse registers

Workhouses maintained various sets of registers to keep track of inmates. Admission and discharge registers and ‘day books’ are 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 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.

Brian Blessed uncovered a Settlement Examination for Barnabas Blessed’s orphaned children revealing that although Barnabas had lived and died in Portsmouth, the family used to live in London, and so a Removal Order was issued to send the family to St Martin’s Workhouse.

Some early Settlement Certificates, Examinations and Removal Orders for London parishes can be seen for free online at www.londonlives.org. Findmypast.co.uk has a transcribed collection of Lincolnshire Removal orders here, indicating which parish a pauper was taken from and removed to.

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Children in the workhouse

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.co.uk has transcripts from a selection of parishes, including entries from workhouses. 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.

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Life in the workhouse

In addition to historical information about particular workhouses at www.workhouses.org.uk, you may learn more about how well the workhouse was managed by looking through its Board of Guardian minute books, or the parish vestry books before 1834, and masters’ journals at the local archives.

Ministry of Health files at The National Archives in series MH 12 contain correspondence between Poor Law Unions and the central authorities, with eye-opening reports about life inside some workhouses, and individual cases of relief or cruelty suffered at the hands of unscrupulous workhouse masters.

Records for 23 unions have been digitised, and are listed on this archived web page. Paupers’ names can be searched using Discovery, and records of particular Poor Law Unions are found using the search box here.

The British Newspaper Archive contains thousands of reports published in local rags about incidents inside workhouses, from Christmas concerts to suicides and scandals.

Many former workhouses are now in private ownership and have become care homes or residential apartments, so it may not be possible to gain access to sites where buildings survive. The Workhouse Museum at Southwell in Nottinghamshire is the most complete in the country, and worth visiting to experience the atmosphere.