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Workhouse Records (Poor Law Unions)

Nature of Source

Records from the workhouse mostly relating to those created after the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act (New Poor Law) of 1834. The Act established poor law unions composed of about six parishes. Each union had to set up a workhouse to house the poor administered by a Boards of Guardians elected by ratepayers. The workhouse was headed by the master and matron and employed medical officers, nurses, teachers and other staff. Workhouse documents of most interest to the genealogist include admission and discharge registers, creed books and birth and death registers.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1868 stipulated that the workhouse authorities in England and Wales should record in Creed Books each inmate's religious affiliation as a way of ensuring that each person's religious instruction could be met and adhered to. The books are arranged alphabetically noting their religious affiliation along with their dates of admission and discharge or death and the person who admitted them. Other personal details included an occupation, previous address, year of birth or age, name and address of next of kin and their original parish. Although the books began in 1868 many existing inmates were recorded. Please note that an admission date could be misleading as it could be the date carried over from a previous book. The Creed Books which gradually replaced the admission and discharge registers, can be found in County Record Offices. The records of various poor law institutions held at the London Metropolitan Archives including Creed Registers are available online at Bromley Archives has created The Creed Register Project which provides transcribed entries from their collection of registers.

The use of workhouses to house the poor began with the introduction of the Poor Law Act of 1601 (Old Poor Law) and witnessed a rapid growth in the 18th century. The poorhouses prior to 1834 were supervised by the Overseer of the Poor, but were under no legal requirement to keep records of those housed. References to inmates are most likely to be found amongst the papers of the Overseer.

Records of births (sometimes illegitimate) within the workhouse chapel are often recorded that otherwise might not appear in the parish register or even in the GRO civil registers after 1837. Deaths are also recorded in the workhouse registers which included the vaccination officer's 'Return of Deaths of Infants under Twelve Months of Age' which contains the child's full name, the date and place of death and the father's name and occupation or the mother's name if the child was illegitimate. Look for board meetings minutes which often include the names of those admitted and discharged and other information on named individuals. This could include whether the inmate was in receipt of charitable relief or a pension, the reason for seeking workhouse relief and by whose order he or she was admitted. Many illegitimate children were born in the workhouse and the weekly newspaper 'The Poor Law Union Gazette' carried many adverts for missing mothers. Runs of the Gazette are available from the British Library Newspaper Collections with digital online editions available at the British Newspaper Archive covering 1850-1899.

Also consult the records of the workhouse infirmary and the lunatic asylum boards. The staff and inmates should be listed from at least the 1861 census. From the 1780s, the poor were sent to workhouses within a ten mile radius of their parish of settlement which narrows down potential parishes for further research.

Also see
Apprenticeship Indentures, Parish
Bastardy Documents
Charles Booth Online Archive
Overseers of the Poor Accounts
Settlement Certificates/Examinations and Removal Orders
Vaccination Registers & Certificates

Where Found

County Record Offices (Guardians of the poor minute books, admission and discharge registers, infirmary records, birth and death/burial registers)
The National Archives (MH 12, Correspondence with Poor Law Unions and Other Local Authorities; MH 12, Correspondence with Poor Law Unions and Other Local Authorities; MH 9 Registers of Paid Officers, 1837-1921)
City of Westminster Archives Centre (Poor law and workhouse records covering the Westminster area including the former Metropolitan Boroughs of Marylebone and Paddington. For more detailed information see Information Sheet 12: Workhouse Locations and Information Sheet 13: Poor Law)
London Metropolitan Archives (See Information Leaflet Number 4: Poor Law Records in London and Middlesex)
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

1690 - 1948

Genealogical Value

Name, age on admission, marital status, address (parish), parish of settlement, place of birth, religion, occupation, name(s) of relations, religious affiliation, physical fitness and appearance. Also the inmate’s status-whether single, married, widowed, orphaned, deserted or bastard. Dates of admission and discharge and physical condition at the time of entry.
Staff details can be found in the workhouse minute books held by TNA and at County Record Offices.

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
Booth's Maps of London Poverty: East and West 1889, Old House Books 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  
Carter, Paul & Whistance, Natalie. Living the Poor Life: A Guide to the Poor Law Union Correspondence c. 1834 to 1871 Held at The National Archives, British Association for Local History, 2011  
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
Davis, Mark. West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum Through Time: Amberley Publishing, 2013  Buy Now on Amazon
Drinkall, Margaret. Rotherham Workhouse: The History Press, 2009  Buy Now on Amazon
Drinkall, Margaret. Sheffield Workhouse: The History Press, 2010  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
Fowler, Simon. The Workhouse: The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors: The National Archives, 2014  Buy Now on Amazon
Fowler, Simon. The Workhouse: The People, The Places, The Life Behind Doors: Pen & Sword Books, 2014  
Gibson, Jeremy & Hampson, Elizabeth. Specialist Indexes for Family Historians: Federation of Family History Societies, 2000 (Preview available from Google Books) Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy & Rogers, Colin & Webb, Cliff. Poor Law Union Records: 1. South-East England and East Anglia: The Family History Partnership, 1997  Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy & Rogers, Colin. Poor Law Union Records: 2. The Midlands and Northern England: The Family History Partnership, 2008  Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy & Rogers, Colin. Poor Law Union Records: 3. South-West England, The Marches, and Wales: The Family History Partnership, 1997  Buy Now on Amazon
Gibson, Jeremy & Youngs, Frederic. Poor Law Union Records: 4. Gazetteer of England and Wales: The Family History Partnership, 1997  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
Higginbotham, Peter. Workhouses of the North: The History Press, 2006  Buy Now on Amazon
Higginbotham, Peter. Workhouses of the Midlands: The History Press, 2007  Buy Now on Amazon
Higginbotham, Peter. The Workhouse Cookbook: The History Press, 2008  Buy Now on Amazon
Higginbotham, Peter. Life in a Victorian Workhouse: Pitkin, 2011  Buy Now on Amazon
Higginbotham, Peter. The Workhouse Encyclopedia: The History Press, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Higginbotham, Peter. Voices from the Workhouse: The History Press, 2012  Buy Now on Amazon
Higginbotham, Peter. A Grim Almanac of the Workhouse: The History Press, 2013  Buy Now on Amazon
Higgs, Michelle. Life in the Victorian and Edwardian Workhouse: The History Press, 2007  Buy Now on Amazon
Higgs, Michelle. Life in the Victorian Hospital: The History Press, 2009  Buy Now on Amazon
Longmate, Norman. The Workhouse: Pimlico, 2003  Buy Now on Amazon
May, Trevor. The Victorian Workhouse: Shire, 1997 (Preview available at Google Books)  Buy Now on Amazon
Mayhew, Henry. London Labour and the London Poor: Oxford University Press 2010 (1851)  Buy Now on Amazon
Mitton, Lavinia. The Victorian Hospital: Shire Publications, 2008  Buy Now on Amazon
O'Neil, Joseph. The Secret World of the Victorian Lodging House: Pen & Sword Books, 2014
Rogers, Joseph. Reminiscences of a Workhouse Medical Officer: Unwin, 1889 (Available to download or read online at the Internet Archive) Buy Now on Amazon
Rose, Michael E. The English Poor Law, 1780-1930: David and Charles, 1971  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
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
Worth, Jennifer. Shadows of the Workhouse: Phoenix, 2009  Buy Now on Amazon

TNA Research Guide: Poverty and the Poor Laws

Stanford's Map of the Poor Law Administration in the County of London, 1905 (location of London workhouses)
A collection of Booth’s London Poverty Maps covering 1889 is available from Bloomsbury Publishing: Shire and Old House imprints

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

Websites (Looking for records of a workhouse) (TNA Guide: Looking for records of a workhouse inmate or member of staff) (The Workhouse: The site is created by Peter Higginbotham who also runs the Children's Home website. The site is dedicated to the workhouse with information on its buildings, inmates, staff and administrators covering England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Other resources include information on the Poor Law and Poor Law Unions, Workhouse Memories, Migration & Emigration and a Timeline) (The Union Workhouse) (The Workhouse, Southwell, Nottinghamshire: The most complete workhouse in existence maintained by the National Trust) (Poorhouses in Scotland) (The Poor Law in Scotland after 1845)
(Scottish Poorhouses) (Victorian Poor Law and Life in the Workhouse) (Devon Archives and Local Studies Research Guides: Poor Relief Records) (History of poor relief) (Westminster Archives: Researching family history at the Archives Centre: Parish and Workhouse records) (London Lives: Researching Poverty) (London Lives: The Poor Law and Charity: An Overview) (London Lives: The Parish Poor) (London Lives: Workhouses) (Lost Hospitals Of London. This website is in memory of all the hospitals that have closed in London since the NHS came into being in 1948) (Links to companies & organisations selling genealogy products) (Manchester Family History Research: Manchester Poor Law and Workhouses and other Institutions) (Pauper Lives in Georgian London with sections on 'Infant Deaths', Workhouse Lives' and Death and Disease') (Manchester Archives and Local Studies:Poor Law and Workhouse Records) (London Metropolitan Archives Information Leaflet Number 4: Poor Law Records in London and Middlesex) (Barnardo's Family History Service. Basic look up search of the Barnado's archive plus a full archive package if name is found. Records date from the 1870s)

Online Databases

Online Catalogues (Listing of online catalogues for the partial whereabouts of records including Access to Archives [A2A], Aim25, Scottish Archive Network)
TNA Online Collections (19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse records: Correspondence between a number of Poor Law Unions across England and Wales and the central authorities taken from series MH 12. See website for poor law union coverage. TNA Online Collections is produced by The National Archives and contains online access to indexes, transcriptions and digital images of some of the TNA's most important holdings. Searches are free but a fee is levied for each downloaded item. However downloads are free if used at TNA or the Society of Genealogists) (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)
(Westminster, Poor Law and Parish Administration. The database contains over 1.7 million records from the poor law and parish administration records. The records cover Parish apprentices, Bastardy bonds, Settlement examinations, Paupers outdoor relief, Land tax and valuations and Workhouse admission records)
(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 Records provided in association with London Metropolitan Archives: Online access to browsable images of admission and discharge books of workhouses and other poor law registers and records including death and burial and birth and baptismal records from Board of Guardian Poor Law records, 1430-1930)
(London, England, Workhouse Admission and Discharge Records, 1738-1930. This collection includes selected admission and discharge records for workhouses created and administered under the Poor Law Acts in Central and West London)
(England and Wales, Long-Term Workhouse Inmates, 1861.This collection comprises records and images from a volume listing every adult 'pauper' in each Workhouse in England and Wales who had been resident there for five or more years in 1861. The data is extracted from Long-Term Workhouse Inmates, 1861 by Peter Higginbotham) (London, Poor Law School District Registers, 1852-1918. This collection comprises admission and discharges of more than 219,000 students from Poor Law school districts) (London Lives: Payments to Paupers; Workhouse Admissions Registers including the parishes of St Luke Chelsea and St Martin in the Fields) (Derbyshire Workhouse Reports. Name Index to the Reports of the Relieving Officer of the Derby Board of Guardians of the Derby Union Workhouse, 1842-1842; Lincolnshire Workhouse Deaths; Manchester, Withington Workhouse Cemetery Records; Wales, Monmouthshire workhouse registers 1837-1929; Wales, Pontypool Workhouse Deaths 1869-1894; St Leonard's Shoreditch workhouse deaths 1820-1828 produced in association with the Society of Genealogists; Surrey, Southwark, St George The Martyr Workhouse Records, 1729-1826. The records consist of a mixture of over 21,000 guardian minutes and records of overseer’s payments) (The Manchester Collection: Transcripts only of admission registers, birth and death registers, creed registers and discharge registers from the New Bridge Street Workhouse, Manchester Union; Withington Workhouse, Chorlton Union; Bury Union Workhouse. The original records are held by Manchester Archives and Local Studies) (The Cheshire Collection: Workhouse Registers 1781-1910 and Religious Creeds. The original records are held by the Cheshire Archives and Local Studies)
(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 including records on paupers and vagrants, apprentices, peddlers and tradesmen. Datasets include Homes for Friendless and Fallen Girls, Exeter-Admission registers) (Surrey institutional records 1788-1939. Records from 16 institutions across, including poor law unions, workhouses, schools, infirmaries, goals and more)
(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) (Hertfordshire Names Online: Ware Workhouse and Cheshunt Workhouse admission and discharge books)
(Manchester Family History Research: Manchester Poor Law Union Weekly Returns And Minutes) (Browsable images of Kent Workhouse Records, 1777-1911; Norfolk Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900) (Bath Record Office: Bath Ancestors Database: Board of Guardians: Boarding Out Committee; Maintenance Case Book; Relief Order Book; Registers of Paupers Removed) (Dorset, England, Parish Poor Law Records, 1511-1997. The original records are held at the Dorset History Centre) (Warwickshire Parish Poor Law, 1546-1904: Pauper lunatics produced in association with Warwickshire County Record Office) (Search site for indexes and transcriptions compiled by local groups) (Bromley Local Studies Library: Index to Bromley Poor Law Union Workhouse Creed Registers, 1883-1893) (Index to 'Paupers in Workhouses 1861', 10% sample) (Transcription of staff and residents extracted from the 1881 census) (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) (Staffordshire Name Indexes: Workhouse Admissions and Discharges, 1836-1900. This is an index to admissions to and discharges from Union Workhouses, taken from all surviving registers dating between 1836 and 1900, in the care of the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Archive Service) (The Creed Register Project covering the Bromley Poor Law Union Workhouse)
(Surrey History Centre Indexes: Chertsey Poor Law Union admission and discharge books; Godstone Poor Law Union application and report books)

CD Roms

Anguline Research (Paupers in Workhouses 1861)
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)
Cornwall Family History Society (Inmates of Redruth, Cornwall Poor Law Union Workhouse 1840-1862, by Sally Pocock; Inmates of Launceston Poor Law Union Workhouse, 1840-1844; Inmates of Launceston Poor Law Union Workhouse, 1850-1854, and 1864-1867)
Peterborough & District Family History Society (Index to Peterborough Quarter Sessions, Inquests & Workhouse Indentures)
East Surrey Family History Society (Battersea Poor Law Records: Index to Orders of Justices 1700-1772 [Settlement] and Index to Apprenticeship Records 1602-1902)
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)
Glamorgan Family History Society
(Merthyr Tydfil Poor Rate Book 1894; Union Abstracts and List of Paupers 1908)