How to look for records of... Poverty and the Poor Laws
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1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide for advice on how to locate Poor Law records at The National Archives, as well as documents in which issues of and connected to poverty are discussed more broadly. The records refer mainly to poverty in England and Wales in the 19th century.
2. The birth of Poor Law Unions in 1834
After 1834 parishes were grouped into Poor Law Unions (new local government units) and these unions reported to the newly created Poor Law Commission, later the Poor Law Board, and later again, the Poor Law Department of the Local Government Board, all based in London.
Each Poor Law Union was run by a board of guardians elected by ratepayers from their constituent parishes. The day-to-day management of the workhouse was supervised by a workhouse master and matron.
The records of the Poor Law Commission, Poor Law Board and Local Government Board are in The National Archives, in the MH (Ministry of Health) department.
3. How to find records before 1834
Most records concerning the operation of the Poor Laws before 1834 are held by local archives, not The National Archives. This is because most parishes, and in some instances other local government units, were responsible for providing for the poor in local areas under the general direction of local magistrates.
As Poor Law records before 1834 are largely parish-based they are therefore kept in local archives.
Paupers were a charge on their parish of settlement, and a local land tax was raised for their support.
The parish of settlement was generally the parish of birth, or for a married woman, the parish of the husband’s birth. This could change over a lifetime, for example if someone was apprenticed or lived elsewhere for a set period of time.
Key records include:
- accounts kept by parish overseers of the poor and churchwardens
- local workhouse books/lists
- vestry minute books
- examinations – statements made to justices of the peace by people with doubtful settlements
- quarter sessions records – if a person’s settlement was disputed between parishes
Useful books include:
- An Introduction to Poor Law Documents before 1834 by A Cole (FFHS, 2000) – gives a survey of available records
- Ancestral Trails by M Herber (Sutton, 2004) – explains the poor relief system, the various poor laws and the idea of settlement (pages 285-305)
The National Archives holds no systematic material about the operation of the Elizabethan Poor Law on a parish by parish basis. However, you can find thousands of letters and comments scattered across various records series in State Papers Domestic and Home Office correspondence.
In 1832 a Royal Commission was set up following agricultural unrest (‘Swing Riots’) and acute concern over the system of poor relief. The Commission’s report and evidence were printed by Parliament.
See ‘Report from His Majesty’s commissioners for inquiring into the administration and practical operation of the Poor Laws’, House of Commons Papers; Reports of Commissioners 1834 (44), in Parliamentary Papers (institutional subscription required).
No working records of the Commission survive at The National Archives.
4. How to find records from 1834 onwards
The operational records of the unions are held in local archives, for example:
- admission and discharge registers
- birth, baptism, creed and death registers
- inmate and out relief lists
Consult Poor Law Union Records by Jeremy Gibson and others (FFHS, 4 volumes, 1993-1997) to find out where records for the use of family historians are located, and which parishes belonged to which unions.
Also use Peter Higginbotham’s workhouse website, which is just as useful for finding the locations of records and contains much more information, for example legislation.
The National Archives holds many records including:
- Poor Law Union correspondence
- workhouse staff registers
- administrative records of the central authorities
You can try searching Discovery, our catalogue for keywords such as:
- personal names
- union names or numbers
- relevant subjects, for example poverty, Poor Law, workhouse, medical, unemployment, wages, riots, Chartism, wages
Restrict your search to MH (Ministry of Health) or HO (Home Office) and the appropriate date range.
However, a search for a name or a specific piece of information might not yield useful results. Some records have been digitised or catalogued in detail, but the vast majority is catalogued only by the name of a union, district or general subject.
To take your research further, use the key sources listed below. You might have to browse our catalogue to find records that might contain the information you want, and then check the contents of the original documents.
For more in depth advice on finding records, at both The National Archives and local archives, and to understand more about their context, see A Guide to Records Created Under the New Poor Law (PDF) by Paul Carter.
5. Poor Law Union correspondence
Consult MH 12, which consists of the Poor Law Union correspondence between the unions and the central authorities (1834-c1900). It offers details of thousands of individual paupers and workhouse staff, and is arranged by Poor Law Union and then by year.
some of the records in mh 12 have been digitised and/or catalogued in detail. these are:
|Name of union||Years catalogued and digitised|
|Liverpool Select Vestry||
|Mitford and Launditch||
|Newcastle under Lyme||
|Wolstanton and Burslem||
* not digitised
**digitised only to 1871
If you are looking for records of the above unions, search our catalogue within MH 12 for:
- personal names
- place names
- relevant subjects
You can search for records of the other unions, but only by union name.
The correspondence in MH 12 contains information about many subjects including:
- the operation of the Poor Law in the relevant union
- vaccination, rate and tithe assessment, school attendance, sanitation
- the employment and dismissal of workhouse staff
- medical neglect cases and ill treatment
You can find sketches of workhouse buildings in MH 12.
Unfortunately, most post-1900 papers in MH 12 were destroyed by fire in the 1940s.
For other correspondence try MH 19, MH 20 (correspondence with other departments), MH 25 (miscellaneous) and MH 15 (indexes to subjects).
6. Workhouse staff registers
Use the registers in MH 9 (1837-1921) to find out about the appointments of workhouse staff including:
- medical officers
Search the series in our catalogue by name of union. This series has not been catalogued by the personal names of the staff. The registers include:
- full names
- dates of service
- reasons for resignation
- notes of allowances granted, for example for light or rations
The registers were only compiled from the 1840s and 1850s onwards, and so early appointments, of those who served for only a short time, will be missing.
You can also find details of workhouse staff and their appointment forms in the Poor Law Union correspondence (see above).
7. Workhouse building plans
The early reports of the Poor Law Commissioners, printed as House of Commons Sessional Papers, contain appendices with plans of model workhouses drawn by architects such as Sampson Kempthorne. Search for them in Parliamentary Papers.
Consult MH 14 (1861-1918), which contains plans of workhouse buildings, arranged alphabetically by Poor Law Union.
There are a few workhouse plans in HLG 6 for the period from 1862 to 1914.
You can trace some details of workhouse building in the registers of authorisation for workhouse expenditure, MH 34. The three volumes are arranged alphabetically by union and give details of the amount of the loan, who advanced it and securities for it, as well as the date of the order authorising the expenditure. These entries can act as a further means of reference to orders in HLG 26.
8. Records of the Poor Law Commission, Poor Law Board and Poor Law Department of the Local Government Board
The Poor Law Commission (PLC) sat from 1834 until 1847. Three Poor Law Commissioners were based at Somerset House in London, with Assistant Commissioners acting as their agents in the country. The PLC reported to the Home Secretary.
After a series of scandals, the PLC was replaced in 1847 by the Poor Law Board (PLB), which lasted until 1871. Responsibilities were then passed to the Poor Law Department of the Local Government Board (LGB).
- the PLC and PLB’s circulars in MH 10 – with registers in MH 10/86-91 and indexes in MH 10/92-99
- the PLC’s minute books in MH 1 (1834-1842) and rough and classified minute books in MH 2 (1834-1847) – these record correspondence, Assistant Commissioners’ reports and the issue of orders and circulars
- appendices to the PLC’s minutes in MH 3 – these include a numbered series of ‘riders’ (papers supplementary to the circulars) referred to in the margins of the minute books
- circular letters in MH 10 (from 1834)
- printed PLB orders in HLG 26 (1842-1871)
- registers to the orders in HLG 66, arranged by union number
- registers of authorisation for workhouse expenditure in MH 34, arranged by union name – these can be a means of reference to the orders in HLG 26
You can find printed PLC, PLB and LGB reports in Parliamentary Papers. They made both annual returns and ad-hoc reports on various subjects over the years. In addition they produced their regular annual report.
The PLB never met formally and therefore created no minutes.
You can also search a set of correspondence between the PLC and the Home Office in HO 73/51-55 (1835-1840). It shows the unrest that the new Poor Law provoked. Read it in association with the minutes in MH 1.
- Home Office disturbances correspondence in HO 40, with entry books in HO 41
- Home Office registered correspondence in HO 45, arranged alphabetically by subject
- Home Office counties correspondence in HO 52
9. Records of the Assistant Commissioners or Poor Law Inspectors
The Assistant Commissioners (later Poor Law Inspectors) organised the division of England and Wales into Poor Law Unions. They carried out central orders. Each Assistant Commissioner/Inspector was responsible for a particular district which included a collection of unions.
Under the PLC the Assistant Commissioners possessed definite administrative powers, but under the PLB their powers were curtailed and they became Poor Law Inspectors.
You can search for an Assistant Commissioner’s name or a district in the Assistant Commissioners’ correspondence in MH 32 (1834-1904).
You can use the registers in MH 33 to find information about the subject matter covered in the correspondence (1834-1846).
The registers record some papers relating to individual unions: these are indicated by the phrase ‘vide union sheet’ in the column marked ‘particular subject’. You can find these papers in MH 12 by year, paper number and union name.
10. Irish Poverty Relief Loans 1821-1874
Search the Irish Poverty Relief Loans, 1821-1874 (T 91) by name on findmypast.co.uk (£).
Alternatively you can browse by place, county or document reference (such as T 91/10) to locate relevant records.
You can find more details about these records on findmypast.co.uk.
11. Further reading
Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on researching the history of poverty and poor laws. You can also use our recommended library book list for titles held at our library in Kew.