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.


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.

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).

Family History – Next Steps

A guide to help you dig deeper into your family history and add flesh to the bones.

Where your ancestor lived: See the guides to building history for the types of sources available for finding out where your ancestors lived.

Where your ancestor went to school: Admission registers for a large number (though not all schools) are available via the archive search room.

To see if admission registers are available for the school you or your ancestors went to search the online catalogue entering the place name and the word school in the Title field – the results will also include records held in other collections, such as plans of the school in the County Architect’s archive.

Admission registers are the main record referring to individual pupils, log books occasionally mention individuals by name (although usually teachers rather than pupils), but are wonderfully revealing about school life.

A full list of archive collections for Derbyshire schools can be found here.

See Find My Past for pre-1914 admission registers and log books   (subscription required)

Where your ancestor worked: it is not possible to find employment information for most of our ancestors, but there are a range of sources available depending on the business, the industry and the circumstances of the individual.   Look out for the forthcoming employment research guide to find out about records of apprenticeship, war service, coal miners (including accidents and trade unions), child employment and individual employees of several local firms.  A very small number of records survive relating to employees and servants on landed estates, particularly for the Harpur-Crewe family of Calke Abbey (ref: D2375).

Ancestors in the workhouse or receiving poor relief: Until 1835 parish Overseers of the Poor collected and distributed monetary and other relief to the in need.  The parish archives include records of people settling in new parishes, being removed to old ones, and examinations in bastardy cases.  Under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, Poor Law Unions built workhouses to house, feed and set to work (if able) the poor in their district, rather than given money.  Admission and discharge registers only survive for the workhouses at Belper and Chesterfield, but records for the other unions  do include some names of individuals in receipt of poor relief.

Criminal Ancestors: Quarterly Calendars of Prisoners provide details of inmates in the county gaol and in houses of correction within the county.

Search the prisoner records database 

Other resources that might help

  • Trade directories: list prominent landowners, officials and some (not all) residents by place, plus a commercial section arranged by trade.
  • Newspapersfrom birth, marriage and death notices to reports of coroner and other court proceedings, newspapers provide more detail than can often be found in formal records.
  • Maps and Plans: can provide information to help find out about the house your ancestor lived in, or property they owned.
  • Family and estate archives: the estates of landed families were major business enterprises, employing large numbers of people and renting property to families.  Few family archive collections hold personal details of employees (though tradesmen might be mentioned in expenditure accounts), but many do include at least some records relating to tenants in rent accounts.
  • Taxation records: over the centuries many different taxes have been collected, some of which have local records.  Most of these are arranged by hundred and then alphabetically by parish, and are found in the Quarter Sessions archive collection (ref: Q).  For information about non-local records relating to taxation see The National Archive research guide.

“On Their Own Account: Victorian Pauper Letters, Statements and Petitions from the Midland Counties” – A talk by Dr Paul Carter

This sounds like a fascinating talk, by someone who really knows his stuff.  Paul Carter works for The National Archives, where his job title is Principal Records Specialist for Domestic Records. He also is researching the history of poverty at University of Nottingham, where he holds a fellowship.

The talk is hosted by Nottinghamshire & Derbyshire Labour History Society and will be delivered at 2pm on Saturday 22 October at The Nottingham Mechanics Institute, 3 North Sherwood Street, Nottingham NG1 4 EZ.  Members of said Society will be having their AGM at the same place from 1pm, and we are told there will also be a Northern Herald second-hand book stall. Continue reading

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.

Discovering Ilkeston

Yesterday morning I visited Ilkeston Library to deliver a new workshop  introducing people to the various sources available for researching the history a Derbyshire building. It was a quiet session, with only two in attendance – though one had travelled all the way from Aston on Trent which took me quite by surprise!

With the opportunity to handle examples of all the original sources we talked about, learning how to use the record office catalogue and discussing more specific aspects of the research each was undertaking (one doing a history of their own house, the other looking more generally at their street and surrounding area, including a former laundry and former chapel), it was a very interesting and enjoyable session all round.

So what did we look at? There are a number of key sources we would always recommend consulting whichever part of Derbyshire you are researching – not all of these sources exist for all parts, though these are the ones you are most likely to come across either at the record office, your local library or elsewhere. There is one very useful source not mentioned below, and this is the tithe map and award as there was never one created for Ilkeston                                                                                                                         title deeds … enclosure map and award … land values map and domesday book c1910 … photographs … electoral registers … sale catalogues … building plans … local publications … official town guides … rate books … local authority records … (click an image for more information)

We also looked at the census – available to access for free at your local Derbyshire library – and talked about newspapers available across the county.

Many of the sources we used during the session were picked somewhat at random purely as an example of what was available, but the stories we found we really quite fascinating – I can’t go into details now, though I do hope to be able to do so very soon.

If you want to find out more about doing a building history, we will soon be publishing a series of new research guides on our website, including three guides relating to building history. We will also be re-running this introduction to sources for building history in the coming months so keep an eye out for more information in the next Events brochure. In the meantime, do contact us for more advice if you want to get started now.