Indexing the Overseers’ Accounts
Overseers’ accounts list the parishioners paying the poor rate and the paupers who then received it through poor relief. They are one of the most detailed sources of information for the Old Poor Law, detailing exactly how this money was spent. The accounts can often help fill in the gaps when researching a pauper ancestor.
As the accounts contain so much information, indexing them is going to be a pretty mammoth task (especially when you pair the volume of information with poor handwriting and some fairly unusual surnames!), but one I am keen to get started on considering how useful these accounts can be. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing on the logistics of indexing them and have made a start on an account book for Chetwynd Parish, see below.
The key fields we’ve picked for the index are place, year, surname, Christian name and occupation or status, so for example whether the person being referred to was a pauper, a rate payer in the parish or an overseer. Eventually, once this is linked to the catalogue, people will be able to search the accounts for a name and the index will guide them to the page the entry is on, much like the settlement and removal orders, which are also indexed by name.
The accounts give a lot of information on the day to day work of the overseers and so also give some insight into the day to day lives of the poor. There is often money spent on subsidising rent, clothing pauper children and doctors visiting the sick. In 1795 there is a payment to Samuel Watkin, his ‘family being ill of the smallpox’. The next few entries reveal the fate of the family, Watkin’s wife sadly dying a little over a week later, with payments for burial fees and a coffin listed. As there are later payments to Samuel Watkin however, the accounts tell us that the rest of the family survived.
Through reference to other Poor Law documents, the accounts can be a good way of finding links between sources and thus tracing people. The accounts for Chetwynd that I am currently going through regularly list the expenses of settlement and bastardy examinations and subsequent journeys taking paupers back to their place of legal settlement or that of the father of their child. Elizabeth Worship, for example, first appears in late 1795, the entry simply stating the expense of taking her to the father of her child. This alone does not give us much detail, but the year of the entry and name of the mother was enough to trace the child’s baptism record through a quick search on Find My Past, where all of our parish registers up until 1900 are digitised. As seen below, on August 3rd 1794, ‘Frances base child of Elizabeth Worship was baptised [a] pauper’. Interestingly, my search for Worship’s bastard child also brought up a second baptism dated just over a year after the first entry in the account book, the child being named as Joseph, son of Elizabeth Worship. As the father is again not named, this suggests that Elizabeth had more than one bastard child… Going back to the accounts, there are various payments to Elizabeth Worship’s presumably first child in 1796 (and in later years), but one that stands is an entry from March ‘to a Journey to Drayton with Elizabeth Worship to [the] father [of] her child 3s, Examination and Warrant 2/6’. This clearly suggests that a bastardy examination took place and also that a bastardy warrant was issued to force the father to pay for his child. It also gives us the name of the father’s parish. Thus the overseers’ accounts have referred us to two more possible sources that could be used to trace this family.
Something else I noticed when indexing was that people are sometimes referred to with a title. This is often the usual Mr or Mrs, but there are also individuals named as ‘Old’ or ‘Widow’ receiving poor relief. The accounts therefore show that it was not just typical paupers who were supported by the parish through the Poor Law. These titles were often used instead of Christian names in the accounts, so it is worth searching for just the surname if the full name doesn’t bring up any hits. Similarly, if you’re looking for a child, you are more likely to find them with just the surname, as they are often referred to by one or other of their parents; in the above example, Frances Worship is only ever named in the accounts as Elizabeth Worship’s child. It’s also worth remembering when looking at the overseers’ accounts that spellings of names could easily vary from one entry to the next. When looking at the lists of rate payers, Arkinstall becomes Arkingstall, Silitoe becomes Sillitoe and so on.
As one of the most detailed sources of information for the Old Poor Law, overseers’ accounts are certainly worth a second look if you can trace your family back this far, particularly as they list the names of ordinary parishioners paying the poor rate as well as the paupers and officials involved in Poor Law proceedings. The aim of the indexing process is to make these records more accessible and easier to search. I will continue to update you on how this goes! In the meantime, you can see which years we have accounts for for each parish on the online catalogue and they can then be viewed in the search room.