“You’ll have us all in The Workhouse” was a common phrase in my childhood if some outlandish expense was proposed, this shows that the threat of ending up in the workhouse had been handed down a couple of generations after the institution had ended.
What was The Workhouse?
The Workhouse was a building that was owned by local authorities to house those who by illness, disability, situation or age were unable to provide for themselves. Whilst the earliest recorded mention of a workhouse is 1631 the records that family historians mainly use for research are those generated from the time of the New Poor Law of 1834. Wikipedia has a good account of the law and a link is given below for those who want to know more. At it’s most basic the 1834 law discouraged the giving of assistance in terms of money, clothes or food to those who wanted to remain living outside of the workhouse. It was felt that it would be more economic to house all the poor under one roof where they could be assessed and if able they could be put to work in jobs such as oakum picking, bone crushing or stone breaking. There was also the bonus that some people would rather starve than commit themselves into the harsh environment of the workhouse.
One of the most inhuman regulations of the workhouse was the separation of husbands from wives and children from parents. Babies were allowed to stay with mothers, but once the child reached an age where it was deemed that they could survive without a mother’s care then they would be put into the children’s area. Visits between husband & wife and parents & children were generally allowed once a week for a short period.
As 20th century got closer workhouses tended to become more humane places to live and generally were used as hospitals for the infirm, sick and orphaned whilst some were used as asylums for the mentally ill. In 1930 legislation was finally passed for the abolition of the workhouse system, but by then many were already converted in hospitals or homes for the elderly.
How can I find out more about The Workhouse?
There is an excellent website run by Peter Higginbotham who is the acknowledged expert on the workhouse system and the records that it generated. Peter is also the author of several books on the workhouse. A link to the website is given below. It is well worth reading the introduction pages of the website to familiarise yourself with the subject before you make a search for the workhouse where your ancestors may lived.
Once a particular workhouse page is located then you will find a full history of that workhouse with perhaps photographs both old & modern, map and floor plan. Also there is information where the records from the workhouse are held. These pages are an invaluable source of background information.
The National Trust has the Southwell Workhouse within their holdings and if you want to experience what these places were like then a trip to Nottinghamshire is a must. There are living history events as well as films and guides so that you get a very real workhouse experience without the hard labour and uncomfortable beds!!
What am I likely to find in The Workhouse records?
The range of records that workhouses generated are vast and varied, but you might expect to find
Workhouse Masters Reports & Journals
Registers of Births & Deaths in the Workhouse
Religious Creed Registers
Admissions & Discharges Books
Workhouse Medical Officers Reports
Meals & Provisions Records
Where can I find records about The Workhouse?
As stated above if you can locate the workhouse where your ancestor lived on Peter Higginbotham’s site then at the bottom of that particular workhouse’s page there will be a link to the archive that has the records.
The National Archives has a good guide to workhouse records which can be read online or downloaded at
The National Archives also have some workhouse records which are part of a project involving volunteers and these records can be downloaded free of charge.
- Axminster Poor Law Union, Devon and Dorset, 1834- 1848
- Basford Poor Law Union, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, 1834- 1845
- Berwick upon Tweed Poor Law Union, Northumberland, 1834- 1852
- Bishop’s Stortford Poor Law, Union Hertfordshire and Essex, 1834- 1852
- Blything Poor Law Union, Suffolk, 1834-1840
- Bromsgrove Poor Law Union, Worcestershire, 1834-1842
- Cardiff Poor Law Union, Glamorganshire, 1834- 1853
- Clutton Poor Law Union, Somerset, 1834- 1853
- Keighley Poor Law Union, Yorkshire West Riding, 1834- 1855
- Kidderminster Poor Law Union, Worcestershire, 1834- 1849
- Liverpool Vestry (technically not a Poor Law Union, it retained vestry status throughout the 19th century), 1834- 1856
- Llanfyllin Poor Law Union, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire, 1834-1854
- Mansfield Poor Law Union, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, 1834- 1849
- Mitford and Launditch Poor Law Union, Norfolk, 1834- 1849
- Newcastle under Lyme Poor Law Union, Staffordshire, 1834- 1856
- Newport Pagnell Poor Law Union, Buckinghamshire, 1834- 1855
- Reeth Poor Law Union, Yorkshire North Riding, 1834- 1871
- Rye Poor Law Union, East Sussex and Kent, 1834- 1843
- Southampton, Hampshire (technically not a Poor Law Union but an earlier incorporation), 1834- 1858
- Southwell, Nottinghamshire, 1834- 1871
- Truro Poor Law Union, Cornwall, 1834- 1849
- Tynemouth Poor Law Union, Northumberland, 1834- 1855
- Wolstanton and Burslem Poor Law Union, Staffordshire, 1834- 1851
Ancestry.co.uk has the following records online
London Poor Law Records 1517 – 1973
Dorset Poor Law Records 1511 – 1997
Warwickshire Poor Law Records 1546 – 1904
FindMyPast.co.uk has the following records online
Cheshire Workhouse Records 1781 – 1910
Derbyshire Workhouse Report 1842
Manchester Workhouse Registers 1847 – 1881
I am sure that everyone will have at least one ancestor who was unfortunate enough to have spent some of their life in the workhouse, whilst we can sympathise with their plight we can also find that the records generated by these institutions are fascinating and informative for the genealogist.