Tracing Your Ancestor Through The Sources
Since setting the scene in my last blog post, I’ve had the opportunity to get stuck into some of the original Old Poor Law documents and have a go at tracing people in them. On the whole, this has been fairly successful so far, but not without its setbacks. Unless your ancestor is one of the well documented few who persistently re-offended and didn’t appear to make any effort to help themselves, you’re unlikely to find reference to them in every type of Poor Law source, so be prepared to meet with some dead ends in your research! While this can be frustrating, it does not mean that you won’t find your ancestor with a bit of persistence.
As the majority of the settlement examinations and removal orders are individually listed on the catalogue, they are often the most likely starting point for tracing a pauper ancestor as they are searchable by name. Due to the in-depth nature of the examinations paupers were subjected to, you can often build a fairly good picture of their life up until this point from these documents.
The settlement examination below is for a woman named Elizabeth Beech in 1783, who was at the time living in Wrockwardine Wood.
In the document Elizabeth states that she is ‘about Twenty two Years of Age’, was born in the parish of Shifnal and about eleven years ago ‘was Bound an apprentice… to Mr William Nevett of Shiffnall… [whom she] served and inhabited with… the term of five years when the said William Nevett failed in Business and she Ran away’.
I found this source particularly interesting because it not only offers up a variety of leads for tracing Elizabeth Beech, but also because it provides an unexpected insight into the changing fortune of a ‘Mr William Nevett’, an inhabitant and some kind of tradesman of Shifnal who Elizabeth was at some point apprenticed to.
The obvious next step in the story was to look for a removal order for Elizabeth Beech. This was surprisingly easy. Where sources like a settlement and removal order obviously relate, this is often noted with a document reference for the second document in the catalogue.
Elizabeth’s removal order does not tell us much we don’t already know, but, dated the same day as the examination, shows how quickly parishes tried to get rid of unwanted and unlawfully settled paupers.
If unhappy with the removal order, Elizabeth could have appealed to the justices of the peace. (Similarly, if unhappy with having to accept responsibility for her, Shifnal parish could also have appealed against the order!) Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any evidence of an appeal in the Quarter Sessions so it is possible it was simply accepted by all parties involved.
As it seemed probable that Elizabeth had been removed back to Shifnal parish, I decided to look in those records to see if I could trace her life there. Using information I already had from the settlement examination, I looked to see if I could find her original apprenticeship indenture to William Nevett. Bearing in mind she had said it was about eleven years previously, I had names, a place and an approximate date to work with. (Again, most of our apprenticeship indentures are listed on the online catalogue individually by name.)
This time around, I did have success, double success! My search brought up two documents, pictured below, the original apprenticeship indenture, apprenticing Elizabeth Beech to William Nevett in housewifery and also their entry on a list of apprenticeship indentures.
From these sources, we learn that Elizabeth was apprenticed in 1774, closer to nine rather eleven years previously to her settlement examination in Wrockwardine (remember this, it will become significant later!)
You might now be thinking these documents are just repeating the same information and the much shorter entry on the list of apprenticeship indentures won’t tell us anything new. This is true with regards to Elizabeth. The reason it is particularly interesting is actually more to do with its reference to William Nevett than Elizabeth Beech, as it tells us he has been living what looks to be 8 and a half years in the parish.
Following on from this, I decided to look through the overseers’ accounts for the parish to see if there was any reference to Elizabeth Beech receiving poor relief either as a child or as an adult returning to the parish. If you have an ancestor who you think might have received poor relief, the catalogue will tell you what years the accounts for each parish survive for, but you would need to visit and look through them for your relative’s name.
For Shifnal, there are miscellaneous bills and accounts surviving for the latter half of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the years in which Elizabeth Beech would have been alive. Although I have not been able to find reference to her in these papers, it possible they have not survived as the accounts are clearly not complete or she is just not referred to by name. However, William Nevett, Elizabeth’s apprentice master, does appear, as between 1773 and 1777, there are several bills paid to William Nevett for various pieces of cloth, thread and the making of gowns and stockings for the poor, telling us about the type of business he owned. The Poor Law records have therefore told us rather a lot about a man who was not even a pauper! (It is also possible of course that, if Elizabeth is to be believed, after his business failed five years later, William himself received poor relief, but I have not found any evidence supporting this as yet.)
Straying slightly beyond Poor Law sources, I was able to use the information I had gained from them to trace Elizabeth Beech back to a baptism record in the parish register, thus giving us details of her parentage, which could then be used to trace her family back further. Initially Elizabeth had claimed when she was examined to be around twenty two years of age; however, as the records show she was apprenticed nine years previously, rather eleven as she had supposed, it is reasonable to assume she was nearer to twenty years old in 1783 rather than twenty two. With this in mind, there is a baptism record for an Elizabeth Beech born to Joseph and Catherine Beech in Shifnal in 1763.
Going then back to the overseers’ accounts, although there is no mention of Elizabeth, in 1774 (the year she was apprenticed as a poor child to William Nevett), there is actually a medical bill for various items such as ‘a volatile liniment’ and ‘pictoral linctus’ prescribed to a Catharine Beech, thus backing up the information found so far.
This case study should by now have shown the value of Poor Law sources, often when you least expect it! Not only are they fantastic family history sources in their own right, but they can also provide leads which can be followed up in other sources.
Shropshire Family History Society, who are funding this project, have a helpdesk at the archives where they are available to provide help and guidance every Wednesday-Friday 10am-1pm if you need help tracing your family history through these sources and beyond.