Old Poor Law Records
A Family Historian’s Gold Mine?
Poor Law records aren’t necessarily the most obvious place to start when researching family history and often end up under-used. However, they can provide a wealth of information on people’s pauper relatives. As parishes were forced to accept responsibility for their own poor, in-depth examinations and disputes as to which parish a person belonged to regularly appear in the records. These documents can therefore provide a level of detail about a person or people you won’t be able to find in any other sources…
Where I come in – Project Aims
As the new intern in the archives, over the next few months I’m going to be working on a project exploring the ways in which family historians can use Old Poor Law records. As part of this, I’ll be updating research guides and search aids and putting together a case study to show how a family can be traced through the different types of sources. By doing this, hopefully I’ll be able to encourage historians to take a second look at these remarkable sources of information!
The main sources for the Old Poor Law are:
- Overseers’ records – overseers of the poor were appointed to oversee the distribution of poor relief in their parish, records include appointments, accounts and rate books
- Settlement and removal orders – designed to establish the legal settlement of a pauper and remove said pauper back to his own parish to receive poor relief, useful for tracking movement from parish to parish
- Bastardy examinations and bonds – where possible, authorities attempted to find out the paternity of illegitimate children and make the father pay maintenance money for his child rather than bear the burden of both mother and child as a parish
- Quarter Session records – as the main judicial court for the county, if someone chose to dispute or appeal again a removal or bastardy order, their case was often heard by the Quarter Sessions
- Apprenticeship indentures – these records give details of pauper children apprenticed to local traders, as it was hoped that by teaching them a specific trade, they would not need to claim poor relief in the future
The bad news – survival is inconsistent. Like so many historical sources, the survival of the Old Poor Law documents varies wildly from parish to parish and while you may be lucky in your search, it can be frustrating to discover gaps in the records.
Even if you don’t have proven pauper ancestors these sources can be surprisingly informative. For example…
As the poor were the parish’s responsibility, parishioners are sometimes called on to give evidence in settlement examinations.
If you have ancestors who lived beyond the age of sixty, they may have claimed poor relief in their old age.
For labourers and their families who lived from hand to mouth, travelling for work, a settlement certificate would have been one of the most important documents they owned, acting as a form of insurance if they fell ill or were injured in an accident.
It should also be remembered that those involved with the administration of the Poor Law were certainly not paupers and much information can be found out about these officials from the records.
If you can trace your family this far back, a lot of the Old Poor Law records are already listed with the names of those concerned on our online catalogue, so are definitely worth a look. If you find anything of interest, they can then be viewed in our search room.
Hopefully this has given you food for thought on the potential value and usefulness of the Poor Law sources out there. Check back in the next few weeks for more information on how I’m getting on with the project!