Poor Relief Under the Old and New Laws
Many people don’t realise they have a pauper ancestor until they find them in a workhouse on the census or baptism or burial record. This week I’m going to be looking at how workhouses operated in relation to out-relief in the cross-over years with the Old and New Poor Laws.
The Evolution of the Workhouse
Although workhouses tend to be associated with the creation of the Poor Law Unions and the 1834 Amendment Act, some early parish workhouses, often termed ‘poorhouses’, existed long before this. Many merely continued to operate as before when the new legislation came in. Unlike the Union workhouses, early institutions were often not purpose-built and while living conditions were far from easy, they did not inspire the same level of dread. For some paupers, like casual labourers who lived hand to mouth, they provided a means for them to get by until they were able to find work again. In also providing relief for the elderly and infirm, early workhouses provided very basic relief from total destitution. However, key sources such as the overseers’ account books suggest that the majority of poor relief in this period was distributed outside of these institutions. As I will come to later, overseers’ accounts often include lists of paupers living within the parish who were entitled to regular relief payments.
The new workhouses built after 1834 were designed to put an end to out-relief and reduce the burden of the poor on the parish. Living conditions were deliberately made harsher than ever, with humiliating rules like the separation of families on entering the workhouse. The idea behind this new type of workhouse was that they would be a deterrent to the able-bodied poor. However, some Poor Law Unions resisted building these new workhouses until well after the 1834 Poor Law came in. Even in places where there was an operating workhouse, huge numbers of paupers can still be found receiving out-relief…
My point here is that despite the Old and New Poor Law records often being described as two very different sets of sources, there is considerably more overlap than you might think. If you have pauper ancestors living in the early nineteenth century, be aware that the way poor relief was distributed varied depending on the area and other factors such as why they were claiming it in the first place.
So how did the New Poor Law affect those claiming long-term poor relief?
As mentioned above, Old and New Poor Law records are generally treated as separate sets of sources and as they appear so different, it can be difficult to successfully trace a family through them.
For this reason, I’ve put together the following example focusing on the Davenport family, who crop up fairly regularly in the Claverley Poor Law (and later Bridgnorth Union) records from the mid-eighteenth century well into the nineteenth.
I first found the Davenports in a weekly payments book which covers the years 1825-1836. Catherine Davenport is listed from 1825 to 1827 as receiving weekly relief for her child. Looking back through the parish registers to find the name of Catherine’s child, it became clear that she had actually had four illegitimate children, Thomas and Mary in 1809, Sarah Ann in 1811 and Jane in 1817. Due to their ages, it was most likely that between 1825 and 1827 Catherine was receiving relief for her youngest child Jane. An apprenticeship indenture for Jane in 1827 confirms this, explaining why Catherine stopped receiving the relief payments.
Through searching for Catherine’s children, I also found her own baptism record, which names her as the daughter of Augustine and Catherine Davenport. This drew me to a settlement examination for an Augustine Davenport in 1756. Although this document is much earlier, as Augustine is a fairly unusual name, he is likely to be a relative, if not her father then possibly her grandfather.
Going back to the weekly payments book, the Davenports crop up again in 1829 and 1836 when first Mary and then Jane (two of Catherine’s daughters) are listed as receiving regular relief for a child.
Jane then appears four years later in 1840, with her four-year-old son John, on a published list of paupers in Bridgnorth Union. Interestingly however, she is no longer receiving out-relief but is in the Union workhouse. I found this to be a particularly useful source as it listed all the paupers receiving poor relief in the quarter ending June 1840, which parish they belonged to and whether or not they were living in the workhouse. It is worth noting here that although from the date it is technically New Poor Law material, I actually found this list within the Claverley Poor Law collection rather than in the Bridgnorth Union records.
From the list I was able to see that Jane and her son were not the only paupers in receipt of long-term weekly poor relief who were forced into the workhouse under the New Poor Law. Others listed as in the workhouse also tended to be mainly unmarried mothers and children, possibly because workhouses were one of the few places that would accept fallen women. Some (but not all) of the elderly claiming poor relief had also ended up in the workhouse. John Hughes for example, who by 1840 had reached the impressive age of 94, is listed as a resident in the workhouse, yet had been receiving out-relief for a number of years previously. There were however still a clear majority of paupers receiving out-relief for a number of reasons.
Poor Law Union Records – which are of most use?
- The workhouse master’s records – these usually give the most detailed information about inmates, and may include items such as admission and discharge registers
- Records of relieving officers including out-relief books
- Guardians’ minute books – these can take a while to go through and the level of detail does vary between the Unions – some focus more on the day to day running and maintenance of the workhouse, while others mention the inmates fairly frequently.
Unfortunately, survival of these records is very patchy to say the least and there are often large gaps in the years that they cover, the workhouse master’s records for Bridgnorth not even starting until 1884… To trace Jane Davenport and her son John I instead looked to the census records to gain an idea of how long they were in the workhouse. These told me that by 1841, John had been boarded out to Quatt Union School. Jane on the other hand, remained in the workhouse a staggering 40 years, last appearing there on the census in 1881. As she was not on the 1891 census, this gave me a 10-year window to search for her death, which I found in 1885.
Despite there being a 40-year gap in the Bridgnorth Union records, as I now knew that Jane had not actually died until 1885 and had remained in the workhouse all her adult life, I actually found her in 1884 in an inmates’ creed register. Although this didn’t give me any new information, it was a nice conclusion to the story.
To sum up, it clearly can be difficult tracing people from the Old to the New Poor Law, and there are often substantial gaps in the records, but this doesn’t mean you won’t find them years later. If you have a pauper ancestor in this period and have identified them as either Old or New Poor Law, it can also be worth looking in the other records set. As above, I found the published list of paupers in Bridgnorth Union in the Claverley Poor Law collection. It should also be remembered that each Union acted differently, so while some were quick to build workhouses and phase out out-relief, others did not do so until considerably later.