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Saturday, 18 April 2015

A-Z Challenge - P for Poor Law Records

 A-Z of Family History Sources & Stories 
Join me on this A-Z journey to explore the fascinating records 
that can  enhance your family history research and writing.

A Plethera of Ps is awaiting you, including  Photographs, Postcards, Police Records,  Population Studies,   Parishes, Prisoners, Personal Memories and Places  to give your family story colour and context. 

But here I am focusing on POOR LAW RECORDS with a look at a Pauper's life in Scotland in the 19th century.

 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" in England) 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 - not generally available online.
They are one of the most popular types of offline tools at my local archive centre, the Heritage Hub, Hawick in the Scottish Borders,  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 Between 1845 and 1930 over 70 poorhouses were constructed in Scotland  with an additional 90 smaller almshouses in operation. In the Scottish Borders, poorhouses were set up  in five towns serving not only the immediate town but surrounding parishes - hence their name of Combination Poorhouse or Union Poorhouse.  My own village of Earlston in Berwickshire was one of twenty-three parishes  served by Kelso Poorhouse in Roxburghshire - a lesson in research  not to get  too restricted by county boundaries. 

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, birthplace, marital status,  occupation, whether disabled and if so how, financial circumstances, and dependents.  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.  
In the collection of  the Heritage Hub, Hawick
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."

Most of these records are not available online, so my tip of the day is {again} to contact the appropriate local archives centre, with most offering  a remote research service.  You never know what might be unearthed to throw light on your ancestors' lives.

Take a look  too, at the definitive website  http://www.workhouses.org.uk that covers  England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland - a compressive, invaluable site, full of information including  transcripts of the 1881 census of staff and inmates. 


Onto Q for Questions, Questions 


  1. I have not run into any ancestors/relatives who were taken care of by the government but surely there must be some similar records. I have not seen reference to such in the Library of Virginia where I do a lot of research.
    ~Visiting from AtoZ

  2. What depressing stories! But what great records to have available.


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