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.

On this day… Belper Union Meeting of Guardians 10th June 1916

A post from Bernadette, currently on a work placement at the Record Office

As part of my work experience at the Record Office, I recently carried out a transcription of a meeting from Minute Book of the Belper Union Meeting of Guardians. Here is a summary of what I discovered as an example of a typical meeting and showing the kind of information you can find in other similar records.

From 1835, Boards of Guardians were elected by parishioners and were responsible for ensuring the poor were housed, fed and given work they were fit enough to undertake, this was instead of giving money to them to look after themselves. As years went by the guardians were given additional duties which were not related to the poor, and the county councils took over the all the jobs when the Boards of Guardians ceased in 1930.

Photograph of Babington Hospital, formerly Belper Workhouse (1999) See more at www.picturethepast.org.uk

Photograph of Babington Hospital, formerly Belper Workhouse (1999) See more at http://www.picturethepast.org.uk

Exactly 100 years ago today on the 10th June 1916 the Belper Union meeting, was chaired by J H Starkey. Twenty four people attended the meeting. The minutes from the previous meeting on the 27th May 1916 were taken and confirmed.

The Clerk examined the Master’s Day Book from the past two weeks and all was correct, he also looked at the other books required to be kept by the master. He reported that he had looked at the Outdoor Relief lists, receipt and expenditure book and Relieving Officers Relief Order books which were in accordance with orders from the guardians and was certified and signed.

The report on state of the workhouse accounts and books relative to the relief of the poor were looked at, directions were given regarding the future management and discipline of the workhouse, and an order of all the invoices totals were posted in the ledger to the credit of invoice accounts.

Invoice for the Midsummer quarter of weeks 9 and 10 for provisions, clothing, furniture, property, necessaries, repairs and drugs looked at in the meeting.

Out relief order for the past two weeks appear on the relieving officers receipts and expenditure books were posted in the Ledger to the credit of relieving officers for Arthur Dicken and Hubert Jauncey for out relief and non-settled poor for weeks 9 and 10.

Several sums on accounts for the guardians appeared to have been paid from the master’s receipts and payment book and these payments were ordered to be posted in the ledger. The payments included salaries for the engineer, clothing from the tailors and firewood for the month of May. It appeared that several sums on account of the guardians had been received.

The total amount was posted for the ledger to the debit of the master and credited as follows for May: firewood sales, pig, Sark Foundry Co and the common fund.

An order was given for cheques to be signed and all amounts to be posted to the ledger for credit of the treasurers and debited for accounts of the relieving officers, A Dicken and H Jauncey. There were also the salaries for the various people working in the workhouse from the probationers to the foster mothers. There were also the collector’s salaries for J G Walters in Alfreton, to the lunatic asylum for the removal of A G Morrell by A Dicken, subscriptions for Idridgehay Nursing Association, establishment for books from Shaw and Sons, maintenance for the Leicester union maintenance of C Spencer, and an invoice payment for F P Westridge for wood.

In the treasurers book it appeared the following sums had been received and the amount was posted to the ledger to the debit of treasurers and credit of the Parochial ledger from May 29 to June 9 for contributions for various areas in and around Derbyshire.

The collectors account includes payments for maintenance, out relief, lunatic asylum and rations.

The clerk had a letter from Mr F W Walters of Pentrich requesting a temporary sum of money due to the absences of the rate collector who had been called up for military service for the Parish of Pentrich. The move was made by Mr Towlson and seconded by Mr Bridges, and it was resolved to let payment to go ahead and charge to the Parish of Pentrich.

A circular letter from the Local Government Board which was dated 26th May, dealing with the Local Government Emergency Provisions Act 1916, was read by the clerk.

There was a leave of absence letter from Dr Clayton for a Dr R G Allen as Medical Officer for the Cottage Homes for leave from the 1st July, he had taken a commission in the R.A.M. Corps [Royal Army Medical Corps], which was granted. They then read out the report of the vaccination officer.

A letter from J Smith the barber thanked the guardians for granting leave, due to illness. He resumed his duties after illness.

Willie Mathers from the Training Ship in Exmouth was given permission to spend his time at the workhouse on his summer holidays.

A Deputation consisting of members and the Clerk, visited the Mickleover Asylum, and their expenses are to be paid.

The Clerk read a letter from the Reliving Officers requesting annual holidays – all were granted their annual holiday, and that the costs for substitutes for each were covered.

That brings an end to my post.

Advent Calendar – Day 19

Less than a week to go, not many more doors to investigate now…

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Account of ‘Crismas Boxes’ given to servants of the Chandos-Pole family of Radbourne in 1772 (Ref: D5557/23/2)


Long before the welfare state, individual families would make charitable donations to the less well-off in their household or their parish. Donations might be in cash such as the Christmas boxes from the Chandos-Pole family to their servants (each man receiving 1s). Other records of such Christmas giving include:

  • beef given to local families by Lady Agnes Fitzherbert in 1857 (Ref: D6943/2/1)
  • List of persons receiving Christmas dole (to the amount of 5s 4d), 1880; recorded in the account book of the Little Eaton Churchwardens (Ref: D1293/A/PW 1)
  • Mr Cavendish’s bounty given at Christmas 1900 to the relatives of West Derbyshire men serving in South Africa during the Boer War(Ref: D504/115/12)
  • the poor of Belper each receiving an additional 1s each and 6d per boarded-out child in Christmas week, approved by the Board of Guardians (responsible for the workhouse and provision of out-relief in 1914 (Ref: D19/CW/1/28)

About the Chandos-Pole of Radbourne archive collection: The item behind today’s door is held amongst the archive collection of the Chandos-Pole family of Radbourne (see the D5557 online catalogue for details of other items in the collection). The collection dates from the time of Sir German Pole (died 1634), and includes estate papers,  surveys, rentals and accounts relating to Chandos-Pole properties and interests in Derbyshire. There is also a good series of correspondence, especially for the time of German Pole (1626-1683), who married Anne, daughter of Richard Newdigate of Arbury in Warwickshire.  The correspondents include John Gell (D5557/2/131) and members of the Mundy family (for example, D5557/2/35,36,42,43,45,51).  There are also letters from Barbados (D5557/2/120,126). Furthermore, there are papers of R W Chandos Pole relating to the Derbyshire Imperial Yeomanry and to Mugginton School which was founded by the charity of Rev Samuel Pole and Ann Pole in the 18th century.

About the family: Sir German Pole served against the Spanish Armada and was made a Knight Banneret for his services in Ireland.  The surname Chandos was assumed by Sacheverell Pole in 1807 as representative of Sir John Chandos.  The family estate based at Radbourne included lands in Barton Park, Dalbury Lees, Littleover, Barlborough, Mercaston and Brailsford in Derbyshire, and Hanbury in Staffordshire.