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Aberystwyth Union poster (catalogue reference: MH 12/1576)

Nineteenth century poverty in England and Wales

One of the key sets of records for those undertaking local, family, social and other historical studies are the Poor Law Union 'correspondence' volumes held at The National Archives. Here we may find allegations of cruelty to individual paupers, instances of workhouse disturbances, accounts of political and Chartist activities, letters referring to children sent to the northern mills, reports on medical matters, accounts of those suffering breakdowns and other mental health problems, and so much more.

The Poor Law Union correspondence is now available to download at DocumentsOnline. 

Read our news story, Living the Poor Life: untold history of the poor now online. You can also watch short videos of Dr Paul Carter talking about the project.

The project

Made up of 16,741 large bound volumes and covering the period c.1834 to 1900, this poorly listed collection of hundreds of thousands of letters, reports and memos tells us much about how the poor lived throughout the Victorian period.

The National Archives has funded a project to catalogue and make available digital scans of 105 volumes relating to 20 areas (22 poor law unions) across England and Wales. These records, and the information they contain, will be keyword searchable and therefore more easily available to a wide variety of academics, family and local historians, colleges and schools.

We are doing this with over 200 local and family historians who will be acting as volunteer editors and who are working in their localities from digitised images of records local to their area. The work will involve reading through those letters, reports and memos and creating detailed descriptions of each one - who they are from , who they are to, who and what they are about.

This project is a real partnership between The National Archives and the local and family history community. It is a great opportunity to work together to create the tools needed by such groups undertaking their own detailed local history research. The project was devised as a result of the success of the Southwell Poor Law Union project and we are seeking external funding to widen the scope of this current project.

The structure of poor law unions

Under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, England and Wales was divided into poor law unions: collections of parishes, for poor law purposes. Some parishes had already organised themselves into groups previous to 1834 under earlier legislation. Others retained their parish status while still reporting through to the Poor Law Commission, though the new unions generally became the norm.

The Poor Law Commission - and after 1847 the Poor Law Board - was responsible for implementing the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act; a system whereby poor relief, particularly but not exclusively for the able-bodied poor, would be offered via the 'deterrent workhouse'. This was designed and run to be an institution of last resort. In this the Commissioners were aided by Assistant Poor Law Commissioners, later Poor Law Inspectors, who operated locally.

Each parish within a union was to elect, by local rate payers, one or more guardians. Each board of guardians would then employ a clerk, master, mistress and other 'professional' staff to run the workhouse on a day to day basis.

Parishes would still raise money through a rating system and the monies from all of those parishes within a union would form the funds for the provision of relief.

In effect the 1834 Act saw the establishment of two new bureaucracies: the Poor Law Union (a new 'local government authority') and the Poor Law Commission/Board (the 'centre'). The job of the centre was to reduce poor relief expenditure by limiting the nature of relief given locally and to monitor each locality. A national level of relief was sought with types of work, diets and uniforms dictated from the centre.

The correspondence

'Correspondence' is by its very nature a dull piece of archival terminology. But it often contains some of the most detailed and intimate local information we hold at The National Archives.

Once the new bureaucracies of the Poor Law Commission/Board and the Poor Law Unions were set up they engaged in a continuous round of letter writing and information sharing; finance, indoor and outdoor poor relief, details about individual paupers, education, building work, workhouse staff, public health, local politics, labour matters (such as trade unions, Chartism, friendly societies etc.) - in fact a broad range of everyday Victorian life.

These records are the original incoming correspondence to the Poor Law Commission/Board from the localities. The out-going letters (where they survive) will be held locally with the records of the particular poor law union. Nevertheless, if the out-going letters do not survive, the vast majority of Commission/Board 'copies' of the responses are usually scrawled on the reverse of the incoming letter, or fully drafted on acknowledgement sheets; in effect giving both sides of the conversation. Indeed, one of the archival beauties of the creation of the Poor Law Commission was that by its having more administrative space than individual unions, the incoming correspondence to the Commission/Board (and the draft letters back) were kept and stored and therefore still available for use.

These records are a fantastic resource for researchers, but only if they are catalogued in such a way that researchers know what is in specific volumes. We know that they are underused by historians - notwithstanding how essential they are for local nineteenth century studies.

The Poor Law Union correspondence is now available to download at DocumentsOnline.