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
DCHQ002788.tif

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.

Adoption

This guide outlines the different sources available relating to adoption, only some of which are held by Derbyshire Record Office.

Updated 19 June 2020.

Note: Information about adoptions and adoptees can only be released to adoptees and must be obtained through the County Council’s Data Protection team.

Adoption since 1927

The National Register of Adoptions for England and Wales was established in 1927 an act of 1926. In part, this was a response to the high number of orphans from World War One and illegitimate children of soldiers. The Register records adoptions granted by courts since 1927. Adoptees can order a copy of their adoption certificate from the General Register Office online or by writing to them.

Under the Children’s Act (1975) adopted children over 18 may apply for access to their original birth record, giving date and place of birth, name at birth, and mother’s name. The father’s name is not always included. Individuals adopted in England or Wales before 12 November 1975 are asked to see a nominated counsellor before they can be given access to their records. Individuals adopted after 11 November 1975 can choose whether or not to see a social worker for counselling before a copy birth certificate is issued.

Between 1959 and 1984, records of adoption had to be kept for 25 years; from 1984, the retention period was extended to 75 years after which point the records should be destroyed; this increased to 100 years from 2005. Therefore, depending on the date of the adoption, not all records will have survived to the present day.

Obtaining information about your adoption

Derbyshire Record Office cannot process any requests for information about adoptions, we can only confirm if we hold any relevant records. Due to the personal and sensitive information contained in the court registers, they are not generally available for public consultation. To obtain information about your adoption, please contact the County Council’s Data Protection team (or call 01629 533190). The team will then contact us to obtain the full information from the records (see below), as well as determine if there are any other records available elsewhere.

Records held by Derbyshire Record Office

Records held include juvenile court registers which may contain information about adoptions and for some Derbyshire courts there are specific adoption registers. Generally such registers are available from the early 1930s, when cases were kept in a register separate to the main court register. Generally the record does not include much information that wouldn’t already be found on the adoption certificate, but the information can vary between different cases.

The Record Office does not hold any adoption case files. For adoptions arranged by charities, such as Barnardo’s or The Children’s Society, it advisable to contact them directly about the records available. The BAAF’s guide on ‘Where to find adoption records’ (2002) is available in the local studies collection or see the BAAF website for the most current information.

As of November 2015, procedures have been established for descendants of persons adopted between 1927 and 2005, subject to certain conditions. The procedures require that information is obtained through an intermediary agency. Details of such agencies can be obtained from the Adoption East Midlands.

Adoption before 1927

There were no official adoptions before 1927, although private informal arrangements for ‘long-term fostering’ were often made. As a result there are generally no formal records; however, there are a number of sources that may provide some information to indicate who took care of individual or groups of children.

  • Search catalogue - parishOverseers of the Poor: may include records of bastardy and apprenticeship, settlement and removal. Since 1575, parents of illegitimate children could be imprisoned, and pauper children were often apprenticed by the parish from 1597. Under Knatchbull’s Act of 1722, children of vagrants could be apprenticed (usually by the parish) against the will of parents. Search the catalogue for the relevant Anglican parish to see what records have survived: in the title field enter ‘parish’ and then the place name in question. We also recommend selecting ‘Fonds’ from the Level field drop-down box.  You can then click the link to see the full catalogue list for the parish collection. 
  • Census: some families or enumerators may specify in the return that a child is ‘adopted’, and the child may or may not have the same surname – if not, this can help trace one or both of their birth parents
  • Poor Law Union (after 1837): may include registers of children “boarded out” in the community under the responsibility of the Board of Guardians who also ran the workhouses. Generally these children are aged over 5 and were boarded-out rather than housed at the workhouse.
  • County Quarter Sessions and local Petty Sessions: may also include bastardy records and examinations, 1733-1862 (see reference Q/RV)
  • Probate records: individuals will often leave bequests to children they have informally adopted or fostered.
  • Hospital records: a small number of early maternity records do survive.  Access restrictions apply to records dated within the last 100 years.
Orphanages

Derbyshire Record Office holds records for St Christopher’s Railway Home (formerly Railway Servants’ Orphanage), 1875-1992. Information about the records held can be found via the online catalogue, under reference D3732. Records less than 100 years old referring to individuals are not generally available for public consultation. To request information out your own records, please contact us about submitting a Data Subject Access Request. Subject to approval of the controller of the records, we can undertake searches for individuals no longer alive, under the terms of our Research Service.

Further Reading

The following guides are also available in the Local Studies Library:

  • Georgina Stafford (2002) Where to find adoption records: a guide for counsellors, adopted people and birth relatives (British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering)
  • For information on pre- and post-1927 records see Family History Monthly (Jan 2006, pp. 20-24)
  • For information particularly regarding tracing relatives and ancestors see Practical Family History (Dec 2008, pp. 50-57).

Explore Your Archive – Reading, Writing and the Theatre Royal

Compare and Contrast – a selection of Derbyshire Record Office documents regarding Regency children and education.

Derby Mercury, 18 November 1829 (pt1)

Derby Mercury, 18 November 1829 (pt1)

Derby Mercury, 18 November 1829 (pt2)

Derby Mercury, 18 November 1829 (pt2)

From 'Sorrows, sacred to the memory of Penelope', 1796 (published by Sir Brooke Boothby whose daughter Penelope died aged 5)

From ‘Sorrows, sacred to the memory of Penelope’, 1796 (published by Sir Brooke Boothby whose daughter Penelope died aged 5)

From 'Sorrows, sacred to the memory of Penelope', 1796 (published by Sir Brooke Boothby whose daughter Penelope died aged 5)

From ‘Sorrows, sacred to the memory of Penelope’, 1796 (published by Sir Brooke Boothby whose daughter Penelope died aged 5)

D2375 M/84/24 Printed orders to parents on the admission of their children into charity schools, 18th cent

D2375 M/84/24 Printed orders to parents on the admission of their children into charity schools, 18th cent

D6948/15/2 Pages from Belper Mill Girls School admission register, 1820s

D6948/15/2 Pages from Belper Mill Girls School admission register, 1820s

Dronfield Academy advert, Derby Mercury, 11 July 1811

Dronfield Academy advert, Derby Mercury, 11 July 1811

D5410/17/6 Letter from Alleyne Fitzherbert (b.1815) at Tissington Hall (pt1)

D5410/17/6 Letter from Alleyne Fitzherbert (b.1815) at Tissington Hall (pt1)

D5410/17/6 Letter from Alleyne Fitzherbert (b.1815) at Tissington Hall (pt2)

D5410/17/6 Letter from Alleyne Fitzherbert (b.1815) at Tissington Hall (pt2)

D5410/17/5 Letter from William Fitzherbert (b.1808) at Charterhouse School, 1819 (pt1)

D5410/17/5 Letter from William Fitzherbert (b.1808) at Charterhouse School, 1819 (pt1)

D5410/17/5 Letter from William Fitzherbert (b.1808) at Charterhouse School, 1819 (pt2)

D5410/17/5 Letter from William Fitzherbert (b.1808) at Charterhouse School, 1819 (pt2)

EYA-poster-story-boxes

D394 Z/Z 49 Apprenticeship indenture of William Smith alias Waterfall of Bakewell, 1812 (pt1)

D394 Z/Z 49 Apprenticeship indenture of William Smith alias Waterfall of Bakewell, 1812 (pt1)

D394 Z/Z 49 Apprenticeship indenture of William Smith alias Waterfall of Bakewell, 1812 (pt2)

D394 Z/Z 49 Apprenticeship indenture of William Smith alias Waterfall of Bakewell, 1812 (pt2)

EYA-poster-poetry-workshop

D5459/1/35 Part of 'Sunday Morning', George M. Woodward.  On the back is written: 'GM Woodward sketches when a child.  These are evident proofs of his natural Genius he used to draw before he could speak plain (W.W.)' - the handwriting is that of his father, William Woodward.

D5459/1/35 Part of ‘Sunday Morning’, George M. Woodward. On the back is written:
‘GM Woodward sketches when a child. These are evident proofs of his natural Genius he used to draw before he could speak plain (W.W.)’ – the handwriting is that of his father, William Woodward.