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Poor Law Records

Before the Poor Relief system was introduced, 15th Century England punished individuals for vagabonding and begging. In 1495 Parliament passed the Vagabond Act which gave officials the power to arrest vagabonds and those suspected of living suspiciously and putting them in the stocks.

In the late 16th Century, authorities began to support the poor in a selective way; those who were seen as clearly in need were given it; those who were merely idle were not. Those who were seen as in need of support were young orphans, the elderly and mentally and physically handicapped.

The Poor Law of 1601 was set out by Elizabeth 1 has been said to be one of the longest-lasting achievements of her reign which was left unaltered until 1834; the law was a refinement of the Act of the Relief of the Poor 1597. It stated that each parish was responsible for the supporting their parishioners who were deemed in need of support. The money was raised from taxing the wealthiest citizens of the country. The money was aimed to supply basic shelter, food and clothing.

As each parish was responsible for their own community it meant that some where more generous than others. This lead to the poor moving to different parts of the country to get better relief. This was overcome with the Poor Relief Act 1662 which deemed that those people who resided in the different settlements that were not their own would be forcefully removed. This created a negative reaction on them from the population. This Act was again updated with the Act of 1691 which allowed people who owned or rented property or served a public office for one year were then entitled to claim poor relief.

To claim poor relief you made an appeal to the Overseers of the parish would decided if your circumstances warranted relief and if so how much you would receive. Overseers were chosen annually from the wealthier male inhabitants of the community and like churchwardens, inherited either a financial surplus or deficit from their predecessors. Their accounts would include expenses such as those of the local workhouse. For an Overseer to take office, he needed the confirmation of the Justices of the Peace. Every Easter their accounts would be audited by two Justices and signed off provided the books balanced.

You can search and download documents from a number of Poor Law Unions across England and Wales, from series reference MH 12 from the National Archives website. This project has been put together in partnership with, volunteers in several parts of the country. The Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834. It was design to bring together the poor relief administrative system. Before 1834 the parish was responsible for the poor relief. However during the Napoleonic Wars, the expense rose to level that the authorities decided that looking after paupers was too costly. When the Poor Law Amendment Act was passed, parishes were grouped into 'unions'. These Unions were managed by boards of guardians who were elected by their constituent parish ratepayers.

Poor Law Records Available

  • Axminster Poor Law Union, Devon and Dorset, 1834- 1848
  • Basford Poor Law Union, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, 1834- 1845
  • Berwick upon Tweed Poor Law Union, Northumberland, 1834- 1852
  • Bishop’s Stortford Poor Law, Union Hertfordshire and Essex, 1834- 1852
  • Blything Poor Law Union, Suffolk, 1834-1840
  • Bromsgrove Poor Law Union, Worcestershire, 1834-1842
  • Cardiff Poor Law Union, Glamorganshire, 1834- 1853
  • Clutton Poor Law Union, Somerset, 1834- 1853
  • Keighley Poor Law Union, Yorkshire West Riding, 1834- 1855
  • Kidderminster Poor Law Union, Worcestershire, 1834- 1849
  • Liverpool Vestry (technically not a Poor Law Union, it retained vestry status throughout the 19th century), 1834- 1856
  • Llanfyllin Poor Law Union, Montgomeryshire and Denbighshire, 1834-1854
  • Mansfield Poor Law Union, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, 1834- 1849
  • Mitford and Launditch Poor Law Union, Norfolk, 1834- 1849
  • Newcastle under Lyme Poor Law Union, Staffordshire, 1834- 1856
  • Newport Pagnell Poor Law Union, Buckinghamshire, 1834- 1855
  • Reeth Poor Law Union, Yorkshire North Riding, 1834- 1871
  • Rye Poor Law Union, East Sussex and Kent, 1834- 1843
  • Southampton, Hampshire (technically not a Poor Law Union but an earlier incorporation), 1834- 1858
  • Southwell, Nottinghamshire, 1834- 1871
  • Truro Poor Law Union, Cornwall, 1834- 1849
  • Tynemouth Poor Law Union, Northumberland, 1834- 1855
  • Wolstanton and Burslem Poor Law Union, Staffordshire, 1834- 1851