19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse records
This project is due to be completed in Spring 2010. Records will be added to this online collection until the project is complete.
You can search and download documents from a number of Poor Law Unions across England and Wales, from series reference MH 12.
We are fortunate to be able to provide free access to the records because this is a project by The National Archives with the aid of, and in partnership with, volunteers in several parts of the country.
The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834, centralising the poor relief administrative system. Previously, poor relief had been largely the responsibility of the parish. Expenditure had risen during the Napoleonic Wars and local rate payers and authorities decided that looking after paupers was too costly. When the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, parishes were grouped into 'unions', managed by boards of guardians who were elected by their constituent parish ratepayers. The new poor law unions were to report to the Poor Law Commissioners, based in Somerset House in London. Assistant Commissioners (later known as Poor Law Inspectors) were allocated a geographical area in which they were to set up, supervise and inspect the unions within it. The new system was expected to reduce expenditure, using a harsh workhouse test. Claimants would be 'offered the house', but if they turned it down then the legal obligation to offer relief was considered to have been met.
Searching the records
You can search by entering any or all of the following into the 'content search' box:
You can also use the operators AND, OR and NOT to search. For example, if you wanted to find documents mentioning the name Thomas, but not mentioning Thomas Marriott, you would search for Thomas NOT Marriott. Please refer to our search tips for more information.
Which records can I download?
You can download records of the Poor Law Unions listed below. All the records start at 1834, the year of the Poor Law Amendment Act. Please note that not all of the records listed below will be online until this project is completed in Spring 2010.
What could they help me to discover?
This online collection holds the correspondence between the union and the central authorities. You will find letters, memos, reports and accounts bound from the loose correspondence. You will see details of individual paupers, cases of neglect and cruelty, and workhouse staff as well as source material to study indoor and outdoor poor relief, education, building work, local politics and labour history, such as trade unions, Chartism and friendly societies. The material is very strong on public health and contains accounts of both physical and mental health matters.
We have posted two examples of the records below. The first document is a letter from Southwell Union to the Poor Law Board with details of vagrancy. The second is a Poor Law Inspector's report of visit to Southwell Union workhouse.
Workhouse, Simon Fowler, The National Archives, 2007.