Beyond the Internet Week 19: The poor are always with us

It seems to me that poverty was much more harshly judged in the United Kingdom than it was in Australia where it took little for a poor season (those droughts or flooding rains) or lack of family support for people to find themselves in desperate situations. I thought it was one of the great strengths of the Kerry O’Brien WDTYA episode that his family’s terrible living conditions in Sydney weren’t swept under the carpet. It’s probably safe to suggest that people living in poverty in England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales were at least as badly off. Their poverty was also perceived to be a symptom of their own mistakes (drinking, bad judgement, profligacy), lack of hard work and ignorance.

So where do you look if you know or suspect your ancestral families found themselves on the downswing of the economy, or if you’ve found them listed as a pauper in the census records, for example?

BANKRUPTCY RECORDS

Yes, perhaps the very poorest would not be found in these records, but they might also be the first clue that not all is well in their world. I’ve found mine listed in indexes, Government Gazettes, court documents and newspapers. Once you’ve located them here, you know to investigate the local or national archives. I plan on talking more on this in another post so won’t go into detail here.

WORKHOUSE

The gateway for workhouse information and records is this site: The Workhouse by Peter Higginbotham. Here you will find background information about the legislation underpinning the implementation of the workhouse system and how they function.  It also offers the opportunity to look at specific workhouses, their layout, a description and perhaps a photo, and surviving records. My McCorkindale 2 x great grandfather, James, died in the Smithston workhouse at Greenock and this website provides a wealth of information about where he would have lived in his final years.  James’s younger daughter,Euphemia, also entered the poor house and died there shortly before him.

I ponder over James and wonder why the other members of the family didn’t take him and Euphemia in. I suppose their commitments to their own children made it difficult. Some had already emigrated, and others have vanished “into thin air”. Perhaps James had dementia and as Euphemia became sick she was unable to cope with looking after him. Perhaps no one cared? Unfortunately the workhouse site suggests some of these records for the Gourock workhouse may be available in Glasgow, but this is uncertain –something to follow up on another trip.

BOARD OF GUARDIAN MINUTES

I don’t know about you but I find meetings the epitome of boredom most of the time, but these minutes are something you will definitely want to look for if you have workhouse ancestors, either as paupers or workers. Keep your fingers crossed and hope that your ancestor has done something to get a mention: been a troublemaker, an emigrant, matron or doctor, or just sat on the Board himself. Certainly our hunt for something, anything on my husband’s ancestor, Irish Famine Orphan Biddy Gallagher/Gollagher was unsuccessful in Donegal…if you don’t try, you don’t know.

While I’ve used these records a little, I’ve by no means had as much experience as I’d like. Some are now available online so definitely worth searching for.  I posted about the Limerick Board of Guardians Minute books last year and some of the migration gems I found in them when I searched the originals in Limerick. My explorations of the Ennis Minute Books revealed references to the seizure of Widow Dynan’s pigs[i] for poor rates in 1850 (what was she supposed to use to support  herself, I ask?) or an appeal by Rev Quin regarding the distress of Bridget Crowe[ii], or the resolution that the Sexton family be given assistance to emigrate along with Conor King of Kilmurry and Sally Clune[iii].  Although I had relatively little time (a day from memory) to review some of these documents, there are many references to individuals. Equally pathetically is the doctor’s comment that there were “380 girls crowded into this room (Dayroom) which is barely sufficient to accommodate 80”.[iv]

It is absolutely critical when looking into workhouse records and Board of Guardian documents that you know which Poor Law Union your ancestor’s parish belonged to. For example, many of the south-east Clare parishes actually belong to the Limerick Union or the Tulla union, while those from the north-east likely belong to Scarriff. If you’re not sure, you can find Clare Poor Law Unions here (click on each union to see which parishes are included) and the survival of records here.

I just happened upon this book called Pauper Limerick:  The Register of the Limerick House of Industry, 1774-1793. It suggests it’s of relevance to genealogists with ancestry from Clare, Limerick Tipperary or Cork.

PARISH RECORDS OR KIRK SESSIONS

Depending on the country, the implementation of the new poor laws will vary but is approximately mid-C19th. Prior to that the parish took care of the local poor (hence the emphasis on settlement issues). So you really need to look at the parish records (not the parish registers, though it’s possible you may find a passing reference there). Check out what’s available on Family Search for your parish, and look beyond the registers.

In Scotland, you’ll also want to look at the Kirk Session records, as it in these that you’re most likely to find some information on your pauper ancestors. I have used the Inishail records and talked about them last year here. One day, in the not too distant future, it appears these will be available online. When that happens I do hope that every name is indexed because while the topic of the day may be about inappropriate behaviour in the parish, you’ll find that when others recall the event they may date it by reference to another’s death or roup, the sale of personal belongings, the proceeds of which for a pauper were paid back to the parish.

It would be possible to talk for hours about my own experience with just this one parish’s kirk sessions. I just loved exploring these in 2010 at the Scottish National Archives, and I can’t wait until they release the digitised versions even if it is my combined birthday, anniversary and Christmas present.

For a slightly different perspective, Susan from Family History Fun has also talked about Scottish poor law records here or this post by Heather Pringle on Edinburgh’s workhouse and her family. Audrey Collins from The Family Recorder also writes on this topic here. No doubt there are many others addressing this issue.

PODCASTS

Audrey Collins from The Family Recorder mentioned Podcasts by Paul Carter which address the issues of the Poor Law and the workhouses in England and Wales. Definitely well worth downloading a few and learning more…I certainly plan to.

Last year I read a book called The People of the Abyss by Jack London describing the precariousness of life for the poor and labouring classes. At times the tone was somewhat supercilious but it did give a good indication of just how desperate life could be for the poor and labouring classes.

I hope I’ve given you some food for thought and research into your poorer relations.

If you have already used these records, please share your findings with us.

NEXT WEEK: Orphanages


[i] BG/EN16 Board of Guardian minute books Ennis Union, Meeting 5 January 1850, page 160.

[ii] Meeting 8 January 1850.

[iii] Meeting 24 November 1849, page 53.

[iv] Meeting 13 March 1850, page 288.

Beyond the Internet Week 10: Church records – the life and times of a parish and its parishioners

This is Week 10 in my Beyond the Internet series of topics in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. I’d love it if you wanted to join in with your own posts on this week’s topic which is Church Records.

Please join in with your blog posts on this topic, and if possible provide the link on this page.

Last week’s topic was church registers: the records of baptisms, marriages and burials kept by parishes in the important era prior to civil registration, taking you back into the 17th and 18th centuries of earlier if you’re lucky. They remain relevant, although less critical, for the modern day.

This week looks at the other records kept by the churches which may provide invaluable clues to your family’s history, as well as that of the local parish where they live. In earlier days the parish was responsible for many of the day-to-day functions of the area, for example, the state of the roads; care of the poor, sick or destitute; foundling children; collection of tithes etc. The potential for finding snippets or nuggets of information about your family is pretty good. You may even find a signature for a distant ancestor who fulfilled ones of the parish responsibilities. The records were kept in a locked chest hence the name “parish chest”.

The parish chest in the village church at Hook Norton, Oxfordshire.

In this topic I’ll highlight a few of the parish records sources I’ve found useful in my own research. I’ve mainly looked at these records for Scotland and England but first let me mention an invaluable resource for German research.

FAMILIENBÜCHER (family books) (Germany)

You will find the standard baptisms and marriages (and sometimes burials) in the church registers but the familienbücher are especially worth seeking out, if you can access them. In essence they document each family as an entity. So when a married couple starts out their children are progressively added to the entry, sometimes with comments about emigration or relocation. Each son’s entry is cross-referenced to his new family once he marries, and each daughter’s entry refers to her husband’s name and her new family. Excellent value.

My hint: Don’t forget that there’s more than one religion in the old German states so do check place information for what churches were in your family’s area. It’s worth remembering that much of the southern areas of Germany are Catholic.

How to find them: The Familienbücher may be microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), so try the Family Search catalogue. If not, they should be with the local parish or with the regional church archives.

The Kunkel familienbuch extracted from the parish records of Dorfprozelten, Bavaria.

KIRK SESSIONS (Scotland)

My 2011 posts here and here referred to these wonderful records in some detail so I won’t repeat it here. They provide a unique insight into the day-to-day life in your family’s parish.

My hint is: don’t just search for your family’s name. In my experience reading the sessions for Inishail parish, each entry makes reference to families or individuals who may have no genealogical link to the key person and you may find yours among them.

How to find them: Essentially only available at (some) Scottish archives, most particularly Edinburgh.  Still it would be worth checking the Family Search catalogue to see if your parish’s records have been microfilmed. I’m longing for the day when ScotlandsPeople makes them available on line. I just hope it’s a full-subscription site because I don’t just want to look at odd pages with my family’s name.

OVERSEERS OF THE POOR (England)

If your family had some land and/or parish status, you may well find them taking on the responsibilities of overseer of the poor. The parish records may reveal their signature, how often they served and other extant information. I learnt that one strand of my ancestry served in parish roles for over 100 years – it was interesting to see how this had carried down the years. Genetics or training? If the family was poor, you may find references to them in the parish minutes.

How to find them: Search the Family Search catalogue for your parish and see what church records they have other than parish registers.

Hint: click on each entry to see what it includes. If you think it might be helpful give it a whirl. All you stand to lose is a few dollars and some time offset by the potential of finding something quite different about your families.

The local parishioners chosen to be Surveyors of the Poor may also be in the parish chest/church records and again give you insight into your family’s responsibilities and engagement.

ENCLOSURE AND TITHE RECORDS

The parish chest records may provide information on tithe and enclosure within your parish. This may list the amounts payable by each individual in the parish and their land and property name. Obviously this is invaluable information for your family’s story. This post elaborates on the impact this information had on my own family history. In other urban parishes I’ve found entries where the relevant parish official has gone door-to-door finding out who lives there and listing their liability.

How to find them: Again try the Family Search catalogue for your parish or the relevant archives for that area.

UNOFFICIAL PARISH CENSUSES

Some parishes have wonderful informal parish censuses in their records. You will give thanks if you find one of these. I’ve seen one (sadly not my parish, and also sadly I’ve forgotten which Northumberland parish it was) which said the woman “was very clean for a Catholic” and other equally acerbic comments.

HINT: If you would like to learn more about these wonderful records you might like to enrol in the Pharos course on the Parish chest.

FINAL HINT: Not everything has been microfilmed, digitised or indexed. Sometimes you need to dig deeper by approaching the local parish (offering them a donation to thank them for their time) or be visiting or contacting the relevant archives. Sometimes you’ll draw a blank but if you get lucky you’ll be delighted with how it enriches your story.

Inishail Kirk Sessions -Scandal & Delinquency

I’ve recently been transcribing the copies of some pages I got on the Inishail Kirk Session records when I was in Scotland late last year. My focus was on trying to dig out a little more on my earliest ancestor in that area, Duncan McCorquodale. I had searched the fencible lists in the Argyll Archives at Lochgilphead without success so decided to switch my focus on whether there was anything in the records regarding his status as a pauper at the time of the 1851 census.

The Kirk Session Records include, inter alia, reports on Delinquency -all the ones I saw were illegitimacies; and Scandal -where there might have been an actual or perceived misbehaviour/breach of church rulings and the Poor’s Funds, which I’ll post on separately.

I was lucky in all these areas. I knew one of his daughters had had two illegitimate children & I found the brief report on one of these pregnancies: all dealt with fairly quickly and without a great deal of fuss, except for the £2 fine payable by the acknowledged father. On the down side it didn’t add much to what I’d already found out in the parish baptismal records.

A Delinquency report on the illegitimate birth of another McCorquodale girl from the northern side of Loch Awe involved various members of my own McCorquodale branch and their families. In the course of this very extensive Kirk Session Report various family connections were mentioned but so were many other residents from both sides of Loch Awe. So even though any given report on illegitimacy might not involve one’s own ancestry, the reports can be a gold-mine of information about other people from the area including their occupations, residences, places of employment. Sometimes people placed the timing of an event in terms of another event eg Mrs Walker late of Annat’s Roup (auction of belongings) or Angus Sinclair’s late at Barcheanvoir’s death, pinpointing years of death for people completely unrelated to the case in point.

The issue of Scandal was also something of a gold mine: the Session focused on a report of inappropriate behaviour by Sarah McCorquodale and a man from across Loch Awe who was visiting at Cladich.

Extract from the Inishail Kirk Session Records CH2/968/1 The National Archives of Scotland

What did I learn?

1. That my 3x great grandfather lived in a “small house” at Drimuirk near Cladich –I had known where he lived from the census but the repeated reference to his small house highlights that it must have been tiny even by the standards of the day.

2. That on the evening under discussion, the McCorquodale family had an Irish pedlar staying with them – having recently seen the surviving footprint of the house, it defies the imagination that three or more adults and one child could live there, let alone have a “visitor” staying there

3. There was a reference to my 3x great grandmother being present at the time, as well as Sarah’s small daughter

4. That my 2 great-grandfather was apparently also present at the Cladich Inn on the night in question

5. That people moved readily back & forward across the Loch for work or socialising, making me feel much more comfortable about the fact that Duncan & Ann’s first children were born on the north side & the last few on the southside. The Kirk Session ultimately exonerated Sarah McCorquodale and the man in question of wrong doing but advised them to be more circumspect in their behaviour in future.

About this point in my reading I thought of how my Scottish McCorkindale grandmother had a habit of watching the activities in the street from behind her curtains –shades of her family’s history in the Highlands perhaps?

These documents are only available at The National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh and are reference CH2/968/1.