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 administration of the poor law unions after their creation in 1834 up to about 1900.
Prior to 1834 poor laws were mostly administered locally at parish level and any surviving records will be in local or county archives.
If you are interested only in records of workhouses, you may wish to refer to our shorter guide for advice on finding records of workhouses at The National Archives and at local record offices.
2. Records before 1834
2.1 Local archives
Most records concerning the operation of the poor laws before 1834 are held by local archives, not The National Archives. Responsibility for providing for the poor in local areas fell to the parish, under the direction of local magistrates.
Paupers were a charge on their parish of settlement, 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 may 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 place of 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)
2.2 The National Archives
The National Archives holds no systematic material about the operation of the pre 1834 poor laws on a parish by parish basis. However, you can find letters and comments scattered across various collections of government records. For further advice see our guides to State Papers Domestic and Home Office correspondence.
3. The birth of poor law unions in 1834
In 1832 a Royal Commission was set up to examine the existing system of poor relief.
No working records of the Commission survive at The National Archives, but 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).
The report and its recommendations led to reform of the poor laws.
From 1834 parishes were grouped into poor law unions and these unions reported to the newly created Poor Law Commission (later called the Poor Law Board, and later again, the Poor Law Department of the Local Government Board), 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. These records include a large collection of correspondence with the local guardians of poor law unions around the country.
4. How to find records from 1834 onwards
The operational records of the unions and workhouses themselves are not at The National Archives, they are held in local archives.
The National Archives does hold many records of the government departments involved in administering the poor laws, including:
- correspondence from poor law unions or workhouses
- workhouse staff registers
- administrative records of the central authorities
Further guidance on searching for these types of record can be found in the sections below.
To find records at the National Archives you generally need to know the name of poor law union that administered the workhouse. Since the unions were based on parishes, the name of the union may not be the same as the name of the place where the workhouse was situated, for example, Eton union had a workhouse in Slough. This may be particularly the case for rural unions. In addition to this, more unions were created over time and the boundaries of existing unions sometimes changed.
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.
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 at The National Archives
Correspondence of the poor law unions with the central authorities between 1834 and circa 1900 can be found in our series referenced MH 12. The correspondence is bound in volumes arranged by county, Poor law union and by date. Most correspondence is not catalogued in detail, simply by the name of the union and the date.
Unfortunately, most post-1900 papers were destroyed by fire in the 1940s.
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
There are subject indexes to the correspondence (see next section).
Correspondence from some of the unions has been digitised and/or catalogued in more detail, these are listed in the appendix below.
If you are looking for records of these unions, you can search our catalogue within MH 12 for:
- personal names
- place names
- relevant subjects
6. Subject indexes to correspondence
The series MH 15 contains subject indexes to correspondence and papers between 1836 and 1920 and can give an overview of the issues facing the poor law commissioners at a particular time. The indexes may be the only surviving evidence of lost correspondence between 1900 and 1920.
Indexes to 1855 are annual, from 1856 each index covers a number of years but there may be four indexes for the same year range, divided alphabetically by subject. The subject divisions are not obvious to the modern eye and it is advisable to look at all indexes for a given year.
The indexes have a contemporary referencing system using the year, paper number and the union number. So, for example, a reference 64/3178/571 means paper number 3178 for 1864 in correspondence from union number 571 (Keighley). The union number can be found in the MH 12 correspondence catalogue entry, in this case MH 12/15164, Keighley 571, 1861-1864, a volume of correspondence covering 1861-1864. Look for the letter numbered 3178 in 1864.
7. 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).
8. Workhouse building plans and improvements
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.
The series MH 14, 1861-1918, contains plans of workhouse buildings. Most boxes are simply described as poor law union plans but some later files are to do with specific issues for named poor law unions.
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 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.
9. Records of the central government administrative bodies
A series of government departments were responsible for administration of the Poor law unions. These were, successively, the Poor Law Commission, the Poor Law Board and the 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.
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
- printed PLB orders in HLG 26 (1842-1871)
- registers to the orders in HLG 66, arranged by union number (the number can be found in MH 12 listings) and alphabetically from 1876
- 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 download 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
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. Further reading
Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on researching the history of poverty and poor laws. You can also search our library catalogue for titles held at our library in Kew.
Poor Law Union records by Jeremy Gibson and others (Family History Partnership, 4 volumes)
Workhouse by Simon Fowler (The National Archives, 2007)
Poor Law Records for Family Historians by Simon Fowler (Family History Partnership, 2011)
In their own write by Steven King, Paul Carter, Natalie Carter, Peter Jones and Carol Beardmore (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University, 2022)
Shaw’s union officers and local Boards of Health manual (Shaw and Sons, 1854-1875)
13. Appendix: Digitised MH 12 correspondence
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||
|Manchester (not digitised)||
|Mitford and Launditch||
|Newcastle under Lyme||
|Southwell (digitised to 1871)||
|Wolstanton and Burslem||