Workhouse Records – A Source Every Genealogist Will Use
Workhouse records are a data source that somewhere along your genealogy journey you will use. It would be nice to think that all our ancestors were well housed, had a plentiful food supply and were healthy and lived to a grand old age. But of course this is far from the truth, somewhere along the way you are going to encounter poverty and hardship. We can’t alter the past, but we can document it and tell our ancestors stories for future generations.
Your main source for background information about the Workhouse is the wonderful website authored by Peter Higginbotham The Workhouse, he is probably the world expert on UK’s workhouses and it will be time well spent getting to know this website thoroughly.
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In 1834 Parliament passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which organised the 15,000+ parishes of England and Wales into Poor Law Unions. This was done by amalgamating parishes to form a Poor Law Union with it’s own Union workhouse. Many towns have a street called Union Street or Union Road and this is a good indication of where the workhouse was situated. Ireland set up a similar scheme in 1838. Scotland had a different system which was installed in 1845. A Board of Guardians were elected locally and it was their task to manage the workhouse and it’s function of caring for the poor and sick. Caring is probably the wrong word as many of these institutions took the view that the needy were in that situation through their own behaviour and the task of the Union was to deter anyone from applying for assistance. Prior to 1834 each parish dealt with it’s own inhabitants that needed help, often such help was given in a more compassionate way in the form of food, clothing and placement of children into apprenticeships. After 1834 all out-relief as this was known stopped and the only way to gain food and shelter was to enter the workhouse.
Once inside the workhouse men, women, children and the sick were separated out so a family would be effectively split up with often the only time parents could see their children was on a Sunday for an hour. Sleeping arrangements were in dormitories and all, except for the very ill and infants, were expected to work within the confines of the workhouse. This work was often monotonous and hard such as oakum picking and stone breaking.
There were frequent protests by the likes of Florence Nightingale and the journalists writing for the medical journal The Lancet about the conditions within the workhouse and eventually the hospital wings of the workhouses were separated out from the general workhouse. However it wasn’t until 1930 that the law regarding the provision of the workhouse was abolished.
Genealogists need to make themselves familiar with the address of any workhouses where their ancestors may have been inmates as on birth and death certificates often only an address is given for the place of the event not the term workhouse. Peter Higginbotham’s website has a listing of all the workhouses with an individual history of each and it’s location, this website is a must for all family historian’s.
Having whetted your appetite for consulting these records the next issue is where can they be found? Generally the originals are housed in the county archives with documents regarding the general business of the workhouses countrywide held by The National Archives. However they do hold the records for 20 Poor Law Unions, but I am unable to find out which ones they have, The Workhouse website will no doubt have that information under each individual workhouse entry.
Workhouses generated a great number of records ranging from birth & death records, baptism and burial records (some of them had their own chapels), admission and discharge, food purchased, goods sold such as the oakum, guardian committee meeting, household accounts etc.
A search of The National Archives (TNA) catalogue using their Discovery search form showed that they hold 87,751 records under the heading “Poor Law Unions” so that could keep you busy for a few weeks working your way through all of those !! They also offer three online guides for “Poverty and Poor Laws“, “Workhouse Inmates & Staff” and “Workhouses”. I think I will need to write a few posts on The National Archives and what they have to offer online and also at their base in Kew, London. Their website is one that all genealogists should be very familiar with.
Ancestry has a number of Workhouse records available.
London Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records 1659 – 1930. You can see these records start at a time when most relief for the poor and needy was in the form of out-relief, through the period of the workhouses and right up to their abolition in 1930.
London Poor Law Removal & Settlement Records 1698 – 1930. If you have never read a settlement record then I suggest you chose one of these at random and read it, never mind that it isn’t your ancestor I can almost guarantee you will be fascinated.
London Poor Law School District Registers 1852 – 1918.
London Poor Law and Board of Guardians Records 1430 – 1930. Consulting this record set and the ones above will save you a trip to the London Metropolitan Archives as this where the originals are housed.
England and Wales Long Term Workhouse Inmates 1861. This was almost a census of all those who had been living in the workhouse for longer than 5 years. A great resource.
Cornwall Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records 1839 – 1872.
Dorset Poor Law Records including apprenticeship records, settlement and removal records and well as pre-workhouse poor law records.
Norfolk Poor Law Union Records 1796 – 1900.
Warwickshire Poor Law Records 1546 – 1904.
Ireland Poor Law Unions Records 1859 – 1860. These are removals from England to places of settlement in Ireland.
West Yorkshire Poor Law & Township records 1663 – 1914. This is a selection so be aware there may be other records in the West Yorkshire Archives.
Medway, Kent Poor Law Union Records 1836 – 1937.
Swansea and Surrounds Poor Law Union Records 1836 – 1916.
FindMyPast also have quite a few Workhouse and Poor Law Records so a name search is well worth while here as well.
Bury Union Workhouse Admission & Discharge Registers, Creed Registers
Derbyshire Workhouse Reports, Chesterfield Union Death Index 1838 – 1904
Lincolnshire Workhouse Deaths.
Manchester Workhouse Registers 1800 – 1911.
Monmouth, Wales Workhouse Baptism Registers, Workhouse Registers 1843 – 1920
Southwark, Surrey Workhouse Records 1729 – 1826
Withington, Gloucestershire Workhouse Death & Cemetery Records.
FamilySearch have a good introduction to Poor Law Records on their website. They also have some Workhouse records for Kent and Cheshire, but to look at the images you either have to be at an LDS Family History Centre which as I have mentioned in previous posts are few and far between or you have to have a subscription to FindMyPast.
Do have a look at some Workhouse and Poor Law records, you may be surprised at just how many records were generated all naming the poorer sections of society. Remember that Ancestry and FindMyPast are adding records all the time so keep up with what is being added with my weekly updates of newly released records which I publish every Friday. Also don’t forget that by clicking on these links you can sign up for a 14 day FREE trial of both ANCESTRY and FINDMYPAST.
The National Trust has Southwell Workhouse in it’s collection of historic buildings. It can be visited year round and you can get a real feel for how a workhouse functioned all be it in a more hygienic way !! I highly recommend a visit!
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