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Overseers of the Poor Accounts (Parish & Poor Law)

Nature of Source

Records from the overseers' accounts which show the money collected for the poor of the parish and the individual payments made to the poor, either as a cash payment or in kind. Parliamentary Acts of 1598 (Act for the Relief of the Poor) and 1601 (Poor Law Act) handed responsibility for the welfare of the poor to the parish authorities. These two acts are collectively known as the Old Poor Law. The Act of Settlement and Removal in 1662 created the use of settlement certificates to prove entitlement to poor relief.

Whilst the rate books detail the chargeable properties, the account books should contain details of payments to named individuals for rent, clothes, medical and funeral expenses. The accounts also include payments made to the aged and registers of apprenticed pauper children. The 1598 Act created the post of the Overseer of the Poor. The post holder was responsible to the vestry and was elected annually. Duties included organising the collection of rates for the poor and other taxes. They were also involved in issuing settlement certificates and removal orders and enforcing bastardy orders. The overseers had responsibility for the parish workhouse established following the Knatchbull Act of 1722.

A person's name might be found amongst the records of the so called Speenhamland System. Dangerously high levels of discontent amongst the rural poor led to fears of potential agitation. Berkshire magistrates meeting in 1795 at the Pelican Inn, Speenhamland, Newbury enacted a new system of 'outdoor' relief. The system worked by supplementing a poor rural labourer's wage with a top-up paid from the poor rates based on the price of bread and the number of children. The system was widely adopted in southern England but less so in other regions. The Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 (New Poor Law) ended the practice.

Payments to a widow could indicate the death of the husband and could help identify the burial record. The accounts record payments, known as bastardy bonds, from a presumed father of a bastard child to the overseer. This could prove valuable if the parish registers have not revealed the name of the father of an illegitimate child. The birth of a child could also be recorded in the accounts.

The Poor Law Reform Act of 1834 (New Poor Law) ended the poor relief system and established unions composed of about six parishes overseen by Guardians of the Poor. Boards of Guardians administered each union and the post of Overseer of the Poor was abolished. Each board was responsible for its own workhouse, nursery for infants, pauper school and infirmary. Workhouse records prior to 1834 are likely to be found amongst these records.

Also see
Apprenticeship Indentures, Parish
Bastardy Documents
Settlement Certificates/Examinations and Removal Orders
Workhouse Records (Poor Law Unions)

Where Found

County Record Offices
LSE Library, also known as the British Library of Political & Economic Science (The Library holds a pamphlet collection with a section on The Poor Laws and the Origins of the Welfare State)

Period Covered

1572 - 1834

Genealogical Value

Names, occupations and addresses of those receiving poor relief. Name of putative father in bastardy cases. Names of tradesmen who supplied goods and services to the parish.

Further References

Aschrott, Paul Felix. The English Poor Law System, Past and Present: Knight 1902 (Available to read online or download at the Internet Archive) Buy Now on Amazon
Bagley, John J & Bagley, Alexander John. The English Poor Law: Macmillan, 1968 Buy Now on Amazon
Beier, Lucinda. The Problem of the Poor in Tudor and Early Stuart England: Routledge, 1983  Buy Now on Amazon
Boyer, George R. An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750-1850: Cambridge University Press, 1990  Buy Now on Amazon
Brundage, Anthony. The English Poor Laws 1700-1930: Palgrave, 2002  Buy Now on Amazon
Burlison, Robert. Tracing Your Pauper Ancestors: Pen and Sword Books, 2009  
Cohen, Deborah, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day: Viking, 2013  Buy Now on Amazon
Cole, Anne. Poor Law Documents Before 1834: Federation of Family History Societies, 2000  Buy Now on Amazon
Englander, David. Poverty and Poor Law Reform in 19th Century Britain, 1834-1914: From Chadwick to Booth: Longman, 1998  Buy Now on Amazon
Fitzgerald, Michael. Ragged London: The Life of London's Poor: The History Press, 2011 Buy Now on Amazon
Fowler, Simon. Poor Law Records for Family Historians: Family History Partnership, 2011  Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy & Hampson, Elizabeth. Specialist Indexes for Family Historians: Federation of Family History Societies, 2000 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Hawkings, David. Pauper Ancestors: A Guide to the Records Created by the Poor Laws in England and Wales: The History Press, 2011  Buy Now on Amazon
Hindle, Steve. On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England 1550-1750: Oxford University Press, 2009  Buy Now on Amazon
Hitchcock, Tim & Black, John. Chelsea Settlement and Bastardy Examinations, 1733-1766: London Record Society, 1999  Buy Now on Amazon
Leonard, E M. The Early History of English Poor Relief: F. Cass, 1965(Available to read online or download at the Internet Archive)  Buy Now on Amazon
McLaughlin, Eve. Annals of the Poor: Federation of Family History Societies, 1990  Buy Now on Amazon
McLaughlin, Eve. The Poor are Always With Us: Varneys Press, 1994  Buy Now on Amazon
Paley, Ruth. My Ancestor Was a Bastard: A Family Historian's Guide to Sources for Illegitimacy in England and Wales: Society of Genealogists, 2004  Buy Now on Amazon
Raymond, Stuart. My Ancestor was an Apprentice: Society of Genealogists, 2010  Buy Now on Amazon
Rose, Michael E. The English Poor Law, 1780-1930: David and Charles, 1971  Buy Now on Amazon
Sim, Alison. Masters and Servants in Tudor England: The History Press, 2006  Buy Now on Amazon
Slack, Paul. The English Poor Law, 1531-1782: Cambridge University Press, 1995  Buy Now on Amazon
Stubley, Peter. A Pauper's History of England: 1,000 Years of Peasants, Beggars and Guttersnipes: Pen & Sword Books, 2015 Buy Now on Amazon
Tate, William Edward. The Parish Chest: Phillimore, 1983 (Preview available from Google Books)  Buy Now on Amazon
Thompson, Kathryn. Apprenticeship and Bastardy Records: Historical Association, 1997  
Tomkins, Alannah & King, Steven. The Poor in England 1700-1850: An Economy of Makeshifts: Manchester University Press, 2003  Buy Now on Amazon
Welbank Fowle, Thomas. The Poor Law: Macmillan, 1893 (Available to read online or download at the Internet Archive)  Buy Now on Amazon
Wise, Sarah. The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum: Vintage, 2009 Buy Now on Amazon

TNA Research Guide: Poor and the Poor Laws

The EurekA Partnership: Various titles containing transcriptions of Poor Law records covering Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Warwickshire and Worcestershire

Websites (Extract from 'Parish Government and Poor-Relief') (Poor Law and Workhouse Records) (Devon Heritage Centre: Information Leaflet: Poor Relief) (North Devon Record Office Information Leaflet Poor Relief Poverty in the Middle Ages) (A Brief Explanation of the Poor Law in respect of Rural Communities 1601 - 1834) (Overseer of the Poor in Pembrokeshire) (British social policy, 1601-1948: The Old Poor Law and The Poor Law of 1834) (History of the Poor Laws) (History of the workhouse) (Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor Account Books) (Researching Poverty) (The Poor Law and Charity: An Overview) (The Parish Poor) (Workhouses) (Pauper Lives in Georgian London with sections on 'Infant Deaths', Workhouse Lives' and Death and Disease')

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A]) (London Lives: Payments to Paupers) (London Lives, Culture & Society 1680-1817. London Lives chronicles the lives of Londoners through the exploration of a variety of sources including criminal registers, session papers, ordinary’s accounts from Old Bailey, apprentice records, coroner inquests, workhouse minutes, Register of admissions to workhouse, clerks’ papers, Churchwarden's account books, Vestry minute books/vestry minutes, Register of removal orders, Pauper examination books/examination books, bastardy bonds and much more) (London Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1430-1930 provided in association with London Metropolitan Archives: This collection includes browsable online access to a huge variety of different records created as a result of the Poor Laws in London) (Dorset, England, Parish Poor Law Records, 1511-1997. The original records are held at the Dorset History Centre) (Warwickshire, Miscellaneous Parish Records including account books and minutes produced in association with Warwickshire County Record Office) (Warwickshire Parish Poor Law, 1546-1904: Overseers' accounts; Poor law papers; Parish account books; Poor rates; Lists of poor and apprentices; Charity deeds and accounts produced in association with Warwickshire County Record Office) (London, Overseer Returns, 1863-1894. This database provided in association with the London Metropolitan Archives contains overseers’ returns of electors listing people who have claimed the right to vote in a parish. The returns are arranged in annual bundles by polling district. The names of electors are listed alphabetically within each parish giving the place of residence and the address by which the elector has gained his vote) (Yesterdays Journey, transcriptions dealing primarily with Derbyshire) (Transcribed data covering 40 square miles around Wirksworth and Matlock, Derbyshire. Data sets include Parish Records 1600-1900, Derbyshire Wills 1525-1928, census returns, Petty sessions, Memorial Inscriptions, Board of Guardians, Hearth Tax and others)
Gloucestershire Archives' Genealogical Database (Records of the Overseers of the Poor including settlement papers, pauper apprenticeships and bastardy documents. Also try searching for a named individual at the Gloucestershire Archives Online Catalogue which includes the General Personal Names Index and other specialist indexes)
(Bath Record Office: Bath Ancestors Database: Parish Poor Law papers, 1694-1841)
(Database of Poor Law records for West Sussex including Settlement and Removal 1662-1835, bastard children and of the apprenticing and boarding out of pauper children)
(London Poor Law Abstracts, 1581-1899. Poor Law abstracts from 66 London parishes compiled by genealogist Cliff Webb. These poor law abstracts, including Workhouse Admission and Discharge Registers, contain a complete summary of the details contained within each entry and includes all details including names and places plus incidental information such as relationships and occupations where found in the original documents)
(Devon Social & Institutional Records. This collection of records has been gathered by the Devon Family History Society from a wide range of local records covering daily life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Search the of records to find paupers and vagrants, apprentices, peddlers and tradesmen. There are vaccination registers against smallpox for Brixham, Dartmouth, Exeter Heavitree and Exeter St Thomas, Haberton, Paignton, Topsham, Totnes and Woodbury for various dates between 1870 and 1905)
(Southwark, St Saviour Poor Relief 1818-1821. The dataset contains nearly 4,000 records that list the details of individuals who applied for outdoor relief from the parish of St Saviour’s Poor Law authority)
(Devon, Plymouth & West Devon Parish Chest Records 1556-1950. Records from the parish chests of Plymouth and West Devon including: Examinations, Jury Lists, Settlement Papers, Bastardy Papers and Overseers and Churchwardens’ Accounts) (Norfolk Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900 Image Browse. Explore poor law union records from the county of Norfolk including births & baptisms, relief lists, admission & discharge books, rate books, report books, minute books and more) (Online Parish Clerks: The project is run by volunteers who collect and transcribe parish records for a chosen Parish and make the data available for free online. The range of information covered includes Apprentice Indentures, Census Returns, Parish Registers, Bastardy Bonds, Settlement Certificates & Removal Orders, Militia/Muster records, Directories, Land Tax Assessments, Workhouse/Poor Law records, Churchwardens Accounts, Tithe Apportionments, Wills, Poor Rate Payers, Lay Subsidies, Protestation Returns, MIs, Church Memorials and Hearth Tax records. Old parish maps and photos are often included)

Local family history societies may have transcribed some accounts.

CD Roms

Devon Family History Society (Rich man, poor man beggar-man, thief, A collection of over 63,000 entries from records held at Devon Record Office)
Cambridgeshire Family History Society (Poor Law & Apprenticeship Papers. An index of all surnames and forenames listed in parish and church records and databases which CFHS has published is available at their Super Search)
East Surrey Family History Society (Battersea Poor Law Records: Index to Orders of Justices 1700-1772 [Settlement] and Index to Apprenticeship Records 1602-1902)
West Surrey Family History Society (Surrey Poor Law Index & Calendar for non-metropolitan Surrey, compiled by John Holland. Includes Overseer Accounts and Vestry Minutes)
Lincolnshire Family History Society (Lincolnshire Poor Law Index)
Berkshire Family History Society (Berkshire Overseers' Papers: Abbreviated transcripts of all the documents relating to the administration of the Poor Laws of Berkshire from 1601 to 1834 developed as part of the Berkshire Overseers Project. The CD contains comprehensive indexes for personal names, place names and occupations)
(London Poor Law Abstracts, 1581-1899. Genealogical Abstracts from the City of London Parochial Poor Law Records including Bastardy/Affiliation Orders, Bastardy Bonds and Examinations as well as Quarter Sessions and Quarter Sessions Appeals. These poor law abstracts contain a complete summary of the details contained within each entry and includes all details including names and places plus incidental information such as relationships and occupations where found in the original documents. These records were compiled by genealogist Cliff Webb)
Parish Register Transcription Society
(The Sussex Poor 1661-1850; The Cambridgeshire Poor 1661-1834)