Poor Relief and Workhouses

A guide to the records of the poor before and after the establishment of union workhouses.

Parish Poor Relief

An Act of Parliament in 1531 was really the first occasion where it was recognised that a formal system of aid was required for the poor, with an act of 1536 legislating for organised relief at the parish level.  Various other acts were passed throughout the Tudor period, including the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 – the Elizabethan Poor Law, later known as the Old Poor Law.  The Act required parishes to appoint two local people to serve as Overseers of the Poor, collecting money through the poor rate to redistribute it to those in need.  After 1662, the Act of Settlement required that parishes were responsible for the poor who were legally settled in their parish.  This resulted in the creation of a series of records (see below) concerning individuals right to claim and settle in a particular parish.

Overseers of the Poor records can be found the archives of individual parishes.  Survival of records is patchy for most parishes, but may include:

  • accounts: relating to the collection and/or disbursement of the poor rate
  • settlement certificates: giving name(s) and parish of settlement.  These were handed to the overseers when people moved into a new parish so that they could be sent back to the parish of settlement if they became paupers and needed to rely on poor relief
  • settlement examinations: created at the time the parish attempted to determine which parish an individual or family was settled in and therefore responsible to.  They often give a potted biography of the individual or family
  • removal orders: where there was a dispute over the parish of settlement, the county Quarter Sessions would issue a removal order from and to the parishes concerned relating to the individual or family
  • bastardy papers: for example examinations to determine who the father was and therefore who was responsible for the child, bonds for putative fathers and filiation orders for maintenance
  • apprenticeship indentures: since 1598, pauper children could be apprenticed by the parish to reduce the burden on the parish.  From 1723, children of vagrants could be apprenticed against the will of their parent/s.  Sometimes indentures survive amongst the parish archives, occasionally indentures of non-pauper children may also be found amongst the parish record.


The Elizabethan poor law placed an emphasis on requiring people (including children) to work rather than claim out (i.e. outdoor) relief.  In 1723, Knatchbull’s Workhouse Test Act allowed for a single parish or group of parishes to establish a workhouse, but very few records survive relating to these institutions, at least in Derbyshire.

A large number of settlement, removal and bastardy records are also held amongst the county Quarter Sessions records.

Poor Relief from 1834

Bakewell Union Workhouse, c1900 (ref: Picture the Past, DCHQ002788)

Poor Law Unions, consisting of several parishes grouped together, were created by the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834.  Each Union built its own workhouse administered by Boards of Guardians elected by parishioners.  This meant that the majority of the poor were housed, fed and set to work (if able) rather than given money to look after themselves.  Over the years Guardians were given other duties relating to non-poor law issues such as civil registration and public health.

The Unions also appointed Relieving Officers who took over most of the responsibilities of the parish Overseers (though the Overseers continued to be appointed and now answered to the Union Relieving Officers.  Other officers appointed by the Boards of Guardians include medical officers, a master and mistress of the workhouse and a school teacher/s for the pauper children.

Poor Law Unions and Boards of Guardians were abolished in 1930, when County Councils took over their functions, including the running of workhouses, which became known as Public Assistance Institutions, and children’s homes.

Poor Law Union records may include:

  • Board of Guardians minutes of meeting, financial accounts and property papers
  • Workhouse admission and discharge registers (arranged chronologically with no indexes, giving name, age, parish and reason for admission and discharge); creed registers (giving name, age, faith and parish); and registers of births and deaths in the workhouse

A list of the Derbyshire Poor Law Unions (see below) and the records available for each can be seen via our online catalogue.  Registers relating to individual inmates only survive for the workhouses at Belper and Chesterfield.

The Derbyshire unions were Ashbourne, Bakewell, Belper, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Chesterfield, Derby, Glossop, Hayfield and and Shardlow.  The unions did not respect existing county boundaries, so some of the Derbyshire unions were responsible for parishes in Staffordshire and other neighbouring counties, and some Derbyshire parishes were covered by other unions, namely Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Basford, Burton-upon-Trent, Mansfield, Rotherham, Tamworth, Uttoxeter and Worksop.

Charities and Other Support

The record office holds over 200 collections for local charities and assistance organisations, including many for local branches of national and international charities.  A fuller guide to these collections will be published in the coming weeks.

Local Studies

A selected list of books and other publications relating to the poor law generally and individual Derbyshire workhouses can be found in the online catalogue indexed under Poor Law.   Further items can be found in the Derbyshire Libraries catalogue, including: 

Records held elsewhere

The National Archives holds a selection  of plans of workhouse buildings between 1852 and 1914, including for Belper, Derby, Glossop, Hayfield, .  Search their catalogue by name of union for plans of workhouse buildings in MH 14 and HLG 6

Also available is correspondence between individual unions and the Poor Law Commission (later Poor Law Board).  The records are catalogued under department code MH, but they are not particularly easy to use, as the file descriptions are very uninformative, so any search may be lengthy.  Search by name of Poor Law Union for correspondence between the Union and the government department responsible for the Poor Law in MH 12.

As always The National Archives also has some handy guides on the records available.

3 thoughts on “Poor Relief and Workhouses

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