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How do I find poor people in Victorian London? – Genealogy Problem Solver

How do I find poor people in London?

How do I find poor people in London you ask? This is a problem that many of us encounter some time in our genealogy journey. London seems such a big place with so many parishes and thousands of nooks and crannies that our ancestors can hide in. These days it is easy to find people in the census and parish registers because of the online images and indexes, but they can still get lost in the years between the census and between the baptisms, marriages and burials The answer is often to be found in the Poor Law Records.

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London Poor Law Records

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed and this grouped parishes into unions, these unions then established workhouses that were run by a Overseer and Matron, often a husband and wife team. In overall control was a Board of Guardians, usually made up of well off local residents. The idea was that the poor found themselves in impoverished circumstance mainly through their own fault and handing out food, clothes and paying for rent was only encouraging them. This out-relief was the method of assisting the poor until the 1834 act.

Gathering the poor together in a workhouse was an economic way of dealing with them and taking them away from family and friends was also meant to discourage them from applying for help. All out-relief was stopped in theory, although it is known that in some areas it still continued on an informal basis, so that there was only two options open to the destitute these were to starve or enter the workhouse. The system remained in place until 1930 when a further act handed the responsibility to borough and county councils.

To learn more about the history of the workhouse I highly recommend that you take some time and look through Peter Higginbotham’s website The Workhouse. 

As you can imagine the out-relief scheme and workhouse system generated a lot of paperwork. These documents are an important part of your ancestors story.

Are the records online and if so where can I find them?

I will list the poor law records that you can find online as these are most likely the documents that most of us can access easily. I will include a note where each set of records come from so that should you be able to visit the various archives in London you will know where to find them.


Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1430-1930. These records have been digitised, but they haven’t been indexed as yet so it is a case of working your way through page by page. You can narrow down the search by Borough then Parish or Poor Law Union then finally by record type. You can see that unless you have many hours to spare you will need to at least have an idea of the Borough that your ancestors were living in. The records vary from borough and parish so whilst one parish might have a particular set of documents the next door one might not. It is very much dependent on what has survived. The type of records found in this data set are:-

  • Admission and discharge books of workhouses
  • Registers of individuals in the infirmary
  • Creed registers
  • School registers
  • Registers of children boarded out or sent to various other institutions
  • Registers of apprentices
  • Registers of lunatics
  • Registers of servants
  • Registers of children
  • Registers of relief to wives and children
  • Registers of inmates
  • Registers of indoor poor
  • Registers of deserted children

The originals are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but owned by the City of London Corporation.

Poor Law Removal and Settlement Records, 1698-1930. A person’s place of rightful settlement was established various means; by birth, father’s place of settlement, residence over a certain period, marriage (wives took on their husbands place of legal settlement and lost all other claims to settlement held previously), serving an apprenticeship and a number of other ways. This altered over the years when amendments to the act were  implemented. If a person was living not in their place of settlement and had to call on the Board of Guardians for assistance then an examination of the person and their situation was undertaken with testimony from the person concerned and sometimes witnesses. Depending on the evidence given a removal order might be issued and the person returned back to the parish that was deemed to be their rightful place of settlement even if this involved the person travelling from one end of the country to the other. Transport wasn’t often provided and the person had a ticket given to them to show to each parish as they walked through the parish. At dusk the ticket obliged the parish where the traveler was to give them a meal and somewhere to sleep.

This data-set covers Bethnal Green, Hackney, Poplar, Shoreditch, and Stepney. They include examinations and settlement inquiries, registers of settlement, orders of removal, and other miscellaneous documents.

The originals are held at the London Metropolitan Archives.

Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records, 1659-1930. These records are exactly what the title suggests. They record the names and details of those who entered the workhouse and those who were lucky enough to find a way to leave it. The records have been indexed as well as digitised and can also be browsed by Borough and Parish. Ancestry offers the following Search Tip: Admission and Discharge records are often split over multiple images, be sure to browse forward and back in order to find all available details about the individual.

The originals are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but owned by the City of London Corporation.

Poor Law School District Registers, 1852-1918Children who were admitted to the workhouse either on their own or as a family group would be sent to school and often at the appropriate age entered into a training scheme or apprenticeship. No choice was given as to the type of work they were trained or apprenticed into. This data-set comprised the admission and discharges registers for each school. The images have been indexed and are also available to browse.

Originals are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but owned by the City of London Corporation.


Poor Law Records 1581 – 1899. This data-set comprises abstraction taken by well known genealogist Cliff Webb. Mr Webb summarised the information from 66 London parishes. The original data was held in 7 volumes. It is unclear if these volumes are copies of the original records or if the originals have been bound into the volumes. This data-set is of the abstracts only and there are no images.

Originals are held at the London Metropolitan Archives, but owned by the City of London Corporation.

Westminster Poor Law and Parish Administration Records. This is a collection of indexed images of the records. They include :-

  • Workhouse Admissions for St Mary-le-Strand (1639-1644), St James, Piccadilly (1791-1858)
  • Apprenticeships for St Anne, Soho (1686-1843), St Clement Danes (1640-1829), St Margaret (1612-1939), St Martin-in-the-Fields (1638-1802), St Mary-le-Strand (1739-1799)
  • Bastardy for St Martin-in-the-Fields (1574-1834), St Margaret (1726-1735), St Clement Danes (1786-1828)
  • Settlement Examinations for Precinct of Liberty of the Rolls (1685-1832), St Clement Danes (1703-1742), St Margaret (1689-1860), St Martin-in-the-Fields (1514-1840), St Paul, Covent Garden (1747-1898)
  • Land Tax for St Anne, Soho (1726-1829), St Margaret (1698-1836), St Martin-in-the-Fields (1755-1840)
  • Paupers for Parish chest records, 1774-1882, for Precinct of Liberty of the Rolls (1685-1832), Precinct of the Liberty of the Rolls (1677-1821), St Clement Danes (1605-1836), St Martin-in-the-Fields (1638-1871), St Mary-le-Strand (1639-1645)
  • Valuations for St George, Hanover Square (1885-1900)
  • Workhouse Day Books, Lists and Registers for St Anne, Soho (1793-1828), St Clement Danes (1677-1860), St George, Hanover Square (1731-1911), St Margaret (1561-1780), St Martin-in-the-Fields (1660-1856), St Paul, Covent Garden (1715-1876)

Originals are held at the Westminster Archives.


The London Metropolitan Archives has a guide to their Poor Law holdings to obtain a copy CLICK HERE. of a Removal Order

To give you a flavour of the detail you may find in the Poor Law records I have included an image of a document relating to my ancestor Mary Ann Matkin. This removal order is a pre-printed page with details entered and then a page written out by hand as to the circumstances leading up to the removal order. The facts given as as follows –

To the Guardians of the Poor St Leonards, Shoreditch from Hackney Union. 27 October 1899

Mary Ann MATKIN is a pauper aged about 45 years who is in the Hackney Workhouse and her children William 11 years, George 9 years and James 7 years are living at the Strand Union School, Edmonton. Mary Ann is the lawful wife of John Matkin who is absent.

Mary Ann states that on 17th October she left her husband at 43 Abbotts Street, Kingsland, they had lived there for less than 3 months. There is then a list of other addresses where they had lived and the approximate length of time. She goes on to say that on 10 May 1880 she married William Matkin at St Mary’s Church, Beverley, Yorkshire. There is then a list of places in Beverley where they lived and the approximate time periods. The names and birth months and years of their children are given. William the father was in the Shoreditch Infirmary in 1885 and last year they applied for help from the Medical Office of Shoreditch.

So it can be seen that whilst it was not easy for your ancestors to be the subject of a removal order they do provide some great genealogical information. By the way I couldn’t resist but search for Mary Ann and family in the 1901 census and she is living with her children in Spitalfields, none of them states they have a job so I am not sure how they were managing to pay their rent or feed themselves, there was still no sign of her husband!

If you want to research these data-sets and you don’t have a subscription to the websites then do remember that both Ancestry and FindMyPast offer a Free 14 day try before you buy period. To take advantage of the Free 14 Day Offers  just click on these links

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