How to look for records of... Workhouse inmates and staff

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

This is a brief guide to help you with your research into the people employed or staying in workhouses after 1834.

More information on central government records relating to the working of the poor laws after 1834, and advice on records of earlier poor laws, can be found in our guide to Poverty and the Poor laws.

What do I need to know before I start?

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 combined small numbers of parishes to form Poor Law Unions, each with its own workhouse. The Poor Law Unions continued until 1930.

The National Archives holds records of the Poor Law Commission (later called the Poor Law Board and the Poor Law Department of the Local Government Board), the central government department responsible for supervising the activities of the poor law unions. The records held at The National Archives are usually about the general business of the workhouses rather than records of inmates or members of staff but individuals may be mentioned in exceptional circumstances.

Local or county archives have surviving records of the workhouses themselves and are the best sources of information on workhouses inmates. Not all records survive, but where they do you may find admission and discharge books or registers of births, baptisms and deaths, details of staff appointments and general correspondence.

Some records held at local archives may be online but most will only be available at the local archives.

Online records from The National Archives

Poor law union correspondence online, 1834-1871

The National Archives has correspondence received by central government from the various unions in England and Wales. The correspondence is not a record of the everyday running of the unions, it is about events that the local guardians needed to communicate to their superiors for information or to seek advice.

Correspondence from 24 poor law unions has been catalogued in detail and digitised. Search in MH 12 using names, place names or occupations as search terms. The correspondence sometimes includes details of individual paupers and workhouse staff.

The unions and dates for which correspondence has been catalogued are listed in section 13 of our more detailed guide on poverty and the poor law.

Advice on finding correspondence that has not been digitised or catalogued in detail is below.

Census records for England and Wales, 1841-1921

Search for a person on the census in England and Wales 1841 to 1921 (charges apply). This may help you to find out whether a person was in a workhouse on the date the census was taken.

It may also be possible to find returns for a workhouse in the census by keyword searching or using advanced search options. For more advice refer to our guide to census records or instructions on our partner websites for searching for institutions.

Findmypast has a list of institutions (including workhouses) in the 1921 census, with advice on searching for the returns.

Records available only at The National Archives in Kew

To access these records you will either need to visit us, pay for research (£) or, where you can identify a specific record reference, order a copy (£).

Registers of paid officers of the Poor Law Commission and its successors, 1837-1921

Browse our catalogue in MH 9 for registers of paid officers of the Poor Law Commission and its successors. The registers are arranged in alphabetical order of geographical district, and then under the various categories of staff, including administrative, workhouse, infirmary, school, medical and relieving staff.

Poor Law Union correspondence, 1834-1900

Most of the correspondence in MH 12 has not been digitised or catalogued in any detail and our catalogue, Discovery, just has the name and number of the union and a range of dates. For example, MH 12/559, contains correspondence from Cambridge between 1834 and 1837 but the catalogue description only tells you the name of the union and the covering dates.

Search in MH 12 by name of the Poor Law Union and date for correspondence between the union and the government department responsible for the poor law.

The catalogue descriptions will have the name of the poor law union which may not be the same as the place where the workhouse was sited. For example, the workhouse in Slough was the workhouse of the Eton poor law union. A search of MH 12 using Slough as a search term does not find the correspondence, instead you should search using Eton.

Use the Workhouses website to find lists of workhouses and poor law unions in England and in Wales.

Indexes to correspondence, 1836-1920

The series MH 15 contains subject indexes to correspondence and papers between 1836 and 1920. They are not name indexes of correspondence but if you know an individual was involved or associated with a particular event or subject area, for example, dismissed staff, the indexes may be a way to find correspondence.

Indexes up to 1855 are annual. From 1856 indexes cover a number of years but there may be up to four indexes covering the same date range, divided alphabetically by subjects. The subject divisions are not obvious to the modern eye, so it may be 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.

Records in other archives and organisations

Visit for extensive and varied information relating to workhouses and poor law unions. The ‘records and resources’ section may help you find out which local archives hold workhouse records.

Other resources


Visit The National Archives’ bookshop for a range of publications on researching the history of poverty and poor laws. The following publications are available to consult 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)