• Poor Law, Workhouses and Orphanages

    Attachment 13756These records often contain biographical detail, such as the number and names of children and often the parish of birth, or most recent settlement, enabling you to identify possible parishes of research.

    The Poor Laws generally cover the period between 1536 and 1834 when the Union of Workhouses came into being under the Poor Law Amendment Act of that year.

    Further Poor relief was administered in the Parish until the 1870s, after which time the focus of relief was firmly Workhouse based. The Workhouse system continued right up to the formation of the Welfare State in 1948.

    For a comprehensive explanation of the Poor Laws from the 1500s onwards, see Wikipedia: Poor Law or Google "Poor Laws".

    For more information see FTF Guide: Hospital and Asylum Records





    The Poor were classified into three groups

    Able bodied - who were put to work around the parish, usually for a ratepayer.

    Children - who were to be apprenticed. (Pauper Apprenticeships lasted from 10 to 14 years and could start at age 7, for both boys and girls)

    The Impotent Poor - those who were sick, elderly, disabled or in some other way incapable of work. Only this group were to be given money (outdoor relief)


    Some key dates

    1536 - Parliament issues a decree that all parishes shall make relief for their paupers by a system of collecting rates from local householders.


    1662 - Settlement Act. This meant that parish relief would only be given to those who had a right to be in the Parish, by birth, by apprenticeship or by recent employment.


    1732 - The Workhouse Test Act. This was to limit out relief - paupers were told that they must enter the Workhouse in order to obtain relief, and the parishes had to provide a workhouse building for this purpose. This Act seems to have been widely ignored, and the system of outrelief continued in most cases as it was recognised that this was a cheaper option for the Ratepayers. It was also more humane, and enabled families to stay together and return to work as soon as they were able.


    1782 - Parish Union Act. This Act was passed enabling parishes to join together to share the cost of providing a Workhouse. Only the "impotent" poor were to be admitted to these workhouses.


    1795 - The Removal Act. This amended the Settlement law of 1662, so that no one could be removed from a parish UNLESS they were applying for relief. Previous to this Act, many people were removed from parishes for the flimsiest of reasons, even though they were not claiming relief.


    1834 - Poor Law Amendment Act. This instituted a national system of relief (although still operated on a parish basis) and provided for a national system of Workhouses. It was a step backwards for paupers, as the regime became far stricter and many people who had previously managed on outrelief, were put into workhouses. Things became even more miserable due to the Crusade Against Outrelief in the 1870s and by this time virtually every pauper was in the workhouse, with the exception of a few very elderly people, of good character. The stated purpose of this Act was to ensure that no-one on public relief should be in any way better off than the lowest worker in the land, and the Workhouses were truly terrible places.



    What Will I find?

    TNA (The National Archives) has a Poor Law Research Guide.

    • Bastardy Records - orders and bonds
    • Removal Orders
    • Settlement orders
    • Records of Parish Workhouses pre 1845
    • Pauper Apprenticeship papers
    • Poor law rates (as levied on householders)
    • Payments (out relief) made to paupers under the Parish system
    • Payments (out relief) made to parishioners for the care of infirm and elderly paupers of the parish.
    • Overseers Accounts and records.

    Not all of these records will be available for every parish and some parishes will have no records at all.

    There is also a section on The National Archives website (DocumentsOnline) where correspondence documents can be downloaded free of charge



    Order of search should be:


    1. TNA
    2. County Records Office
    3. Church Records (sometimes called the Parish Chest)
    4. A2A site has some pre 1835 poor law records.


    Other resources


    Irish Maps of Poor Law Unions


    Welsh Poor Law Unions




    Back to Records Office Guide