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?
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.
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.
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.