Thursday, 26 January 2012

Poor Law Records - A Free Offline Tool: 52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy

Amy at http://wetree.blogspot.com/  in conjunction with Geneabloggers, has begun a new series of weekly blogging prompts on the theme of  52 Weeks of Abundant Genealogy. Week 4 – Free Offline Genealogy :

Seeing an ancestor described as a "pauper" in a census return conjures up images of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and a time when the word "poorhouse" (or "workhouse" struck fear in people living close to destitution.  But for family historians searching for a story beyond the simple names and dates, such a discovery is an  immediate prompt to turn to poor law records. 


They are one of the most popular types of offline tools at my local archive centre, the Heritage Hub, Hawick and, although they have not been a source for my own family,  I find it fascinating to browse through them. 

Poorhouses were set up in Scotland as a result of the Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845 and were built in five towns in the Scottish Borders, serving not only the immediate town but surrounding parishes - hence their name of Combination Poorhouse or Union Poorhouse.

The Victorians  were great bureaucrats and the Heritage Hub holds a large collection of local Poor Law Registers, Poor Relief Applications and Parochial Board Minute Books, many of which can give a mini-biography of an ancestor, in often tragic circumstances, with details of name, address, aged, birhtplace,marital status,  occupation, whether disabled and if so how, financial circumstances, and dependants.  Here are some examples which caught my attention:
  • Robert Leck, once a well known clockmaker of Jedburgh, admitted to the poorhouse aged 67, with a pattern of admissions and discharges until the time came when he was "wholly disabled, nearly blind and wholly destitute".  Interestingly when I did a Google search, I found  an illustration of a Robert Leck grandfather clock about to be auctioned in London.
  • The story of Janet Scott had a more positive outcome.  Her admission record in 1877 gives us a glimpse of the desperate situation in which many applicants for poor relief found themselves.  A single mother with  two children and a baby, working as an agricultural  labourer, she  was "wholly disabled by a cart falling on her".  She was on parish relief for three years.  However she also demonstrated her resilience, as  in the 1881 census she was back earning a living, as an Ag. Lab, along with her two eldest daughters.  
Janet Scott's entry in the Jedburgh Union Poorhouse Register, 1877. 
Being a "pauper" did not always mean being admitted to the poorhouse,  as those on "out relief" lived in the  community and received support such as clothing, fuel or food, as illustrated in these records from Duns, Berwickshire:

  •  15 year old James Robertson is described as "delicate and deformed by spine curvature and will never be able to do much.  He needs a suit of clothes, 2 pairs of stockings and 2 handkerchiefs.  Allowed. 
  • Mary Burns, also in need of clothing , was granted " 1 frock, 2 yards flannel, 2 yards drugget, 2 pinafores and a  pair of boots."
  • At Melrose, Rosburghshire, a mother and young children were "footsore and weary"  and given help as they made their way from Newcastle to Glasgow to rejoin family  - a distance of 114 miles.
  • Mary Phllips was admitted to the Poorhouse as "this woman's husband deserted her, having absconded to America.  She has 2 children and is about to be confined.  Her parents very poor."
  • The Inspector was not always the hard face of the law.  At Melrose two young children whose mother had run away with another man,  were given a penny to buy a roll and told to return home and send their father.   The record showed six  young children in the family aged from 13 to 3 years old.
  • Rebecca Ballantyne, however, "burdened with 2 illegitimate children" was refused poor relief on the grounds she was able bodied and earning a good wage - 15 shillings a week as a mill worker.
  • In Hawick "Robert Campbell, a weaver, almost disabled by rheumatism applied for relief and was offered admission to the Poorhouse, but declined the offer."
  • "George Wilson, a labourer, wholly disabled by bronchitis,  as certified  by Doctor McLeod, was sent to the Poorhouse on 26th March but left the same on 2nd April."
The key to tracing offline records is often a census entry giving a clue as to occupation or status which can lead you onto Police Records (either as a constable or wrong side of the law), School Records, paticularly if your ancestor was a teacher, Burgh or County Council Records for an ancestor invovled in local government, or Militia Records to find an ancestor who may be listed as a volunteer soldier in the event of a Napoleonic invasion..... and much, much more.

So my tip of the day is to contact your appropriate local archives centre - they will hold a wealth of records showing there is genealogical life well beyond the Internet and most offer a remote research service.  You never know what might be unearthed to throw light on your ancestors' lives.  

With acknowledgement to the Heritage Hub, Hawick for permission to use the image above.  www.heartofhawick.co.uk/heritagehub

1 comment:

  1. What a great post Susan! It not only demonstrates abundant genealogy but the joys of records beyond the internet. I have a pauper in my Scottish genealogy who I need to pursue further in the records - he falls into the transition period between the church supporting the poor and the Poor Law support. I hope your post inspires others to try these records. Thanks.

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