Poor Law Records

The Tudor monarchy required each civil parish to care for its own poor. The Poor Law Act of 1601 introduced the first poor law records which were further supplemented by the Settlement Act of 1662. The period from 1601-1834 is referred to as the time of the "Old Poor Law." The "New Poor Law" introduced in 1834 placed more emphasis on poor relief through regions known as Poor Law Unions, most of which established a workhouse.

The Old Poor Law involved such records as examination papers, bastardy bonds, settlement papers, removal orders, and apprenticeships of poor children. Such records will also be found recorded in the county court known as Quarter Sessions that had both original and appellate jurisdiction. Poor law records can be further supplemented by vestry minutes and churchwardens' accounts. The types and number of records increased with the New Poor Law. For further information on the history of the poor laws and samples of a settlement paper and a removal order see The Workhouse and click on "The Old Poor Law."

The records of the Old Poor Law are particularly valuable for determining the father of an illegitimate child, tracing internal migration, and learning more about life for those receiving poor relief. The records are usually found today on the county level at their respective record offices. Unfortunately, the records do not always survive and may not be indexed. The records of the New Poor Law add admissions to and discharges from the workhouses as well as vital records on the inhabitants, who were also enumerated in each census by workhouse. From 1834-1890, the poor might have received assistance from the parish to migrate to British colonies. Records of those who were assisted to emigrate were kept by the Ministry of Health and will be found at the National Archives in Kew arranged by county and poor law union under the archival classification of MH 12.

To find the records of the Old Poor Law, search for both the parish and county in the FHL catalog under the subjects of "Poorhouses, poor law, etc." and "Court records." The table provided below outlines by county some of the major collections of poor law records and/or their indexes presently at the FHL. Where instructed below to type in a film number, it is easier to use the previous site at FamilySearch to see the entire collection of films. Workhouses.org.uk will give the history of each poor law union, existing poor law records for each union, and the contact information for the entity that holds those records.  Also, Ancestry.com has a collection of poor law records available through their card catalog and FindMyPast.com has various poor law records available through "A-Z of record sets."  One other database to search is the Kinship and Poverty project.  This is an ongoing project to gather information on recipients of poor relief and their kinship connections.  The database deals with poor law records and relief recipients from 1600 to 1834 and can be searched by person, years, or place.

FHL Old Poor Law Records

The Family History Library Catalog has many poor law records and indexes available for each county in England.  These records and indexes were created by various genealogical societies, poor law unions, or people.  Search in the Catalog for the county of interest.  The desired records will be located under the "Poorhouses, poor law, etc." and "Poorhouses, poor law, etc. - Indexes" subheadings.  For instance, Bedfordshire has poor law records from four poor law unions, ranging in years from 1800 to 1908, and an index of poor law records ranging from 1622 to 1834 created by the county genealogical society.  Most of these records are only available on microfilm or on the computers at the Family History Library, but a few are available on the FamilySearch website. 

Online Poor Law Records

For Old Poor Law records in England, start with the websites of the various county record offices for any online databases. Examples of such databases include:

  • All Counties
    • Check periodically FindMyPast.com and scroll down to the listings for Apprentices, Courts & Legal, and Workhouses and poor law. This is a fee site, but searches can be conducted without charge at the FHL, the computers in the BYU Family History Library, and through FamilySearch Partner Access.  Also periodically check Ancestry.com for poor law records.
    • Check out Online Parish Clerks
    • Search the county section of GENUKI under the same subjects of "Poorhouses, poor law, etc." and "Court records." Also see Jeremy Gibson's Specialist Indexes (FHL Reference 942 D27gj 2001 and BYU Religion/Family Reference CS 434 .G53x 2001)
    • Some records are available at The National Archives.  Here is their guide on how to find poor law records on their website.
  • Bedford
    • Visit Bedfordshire County Archives to learn more about the history of poor law records in Bedfordshire and where to find them by reading the "Poor Law Records pre 1834" and "Poor Law Union Records" collection guides.
  • Cambridge
  • Cheshire
    • FamilySearch has a searchable collection of Cheshire workhouse records (1848-1967). FindMyPast has collections of workhouse records (Admissions & Discharges and Religious Creeds).
  • Cornwall
    • Ancestry has a collection of Cornwall workhouse admission and discharge records (1839-1872).
  • Derbyshire
    • FindMyPast has workhouse death indexes and workhouse reports for Derbyshire.
  • Devon
    • FamilySearch has a collection of Devon poor law records (1761-1948) images (not searchable).
  • Dorset
    • Visit the Dorset OPC.  Almost every parish has extracts, transcriptions, or indexes of censuses, parish registers, and/or poor law records
    • Ancestry has a large collection of Dorset poor law records.  There are poor law settlement and removal records (1682-1862), apprenticeship records (1623-1898), quarter sessions order books (1625-1905), vagrant passes (1739-1791), bastardy records (1725-1853), and general poor law records (1511-1997).
  • Durham
    • Visit the Durham County Record Office.  This website has some images and records available online, although most can only be accessed at the record office.
  • Essex
  • Gloucester
    • FindMyPast has a collection of Gloucester apprenticeships from 1595 to 1700.
  • Hampshire
    • FindMyPast has a collection of Hampshire workhouse registers.
  • Hertford
    • Go to the Hertfordshire County website. This website has a searchable index of apprenticeship records (1599-1903) and a variety of other poor law records (1623-1912).  The index is searchable by name, place, and date and the results include the name, date, place, and record type.  Such types include removals, workhouse admissions/discharges, examinations, settlements, and other records.
  • Kent
    • Go to Kent Genealogy and click on the "Quarter Sessions Index" at the left. Currently there are indexes for East Kent, 1682-1716, and West Kent, 1692-1713, 1734-1746 and 1758-1804.
    • FamilySearch has a collection of Kent poor law records (1777-1911) images (not searchable).
  • Lancashire
    • Ancestry has Lancashire quarter session records (1648-1908) and vagrant passes (1801-1835).
    • FindMyPast has Manchester poor law collections, including apprenticeship records, rate books (1706-1900), and workhouse registers (1800-1911)
  • Lincoln
    • FindMyPast has a variety of Lincolnshire poor law record collections.  Such records include: apprenticeship index, bastardy cases, removals (1665-1865), settlement certificates (1675-1860), settlement examinations (1721-1861), and workhouse deaths.
  • Middlesex
    • Ancestry has many collections of London poor law records. Such collections include: poor law school district registers (1852-1918), workhouse admission and discharge records (1764-1930), rate books (1684-1907), removal and settlement records (1698-1930), and board of guardian records (1738-1930).
    • A "comprehensive electronic edition of primary sources" entitled "London Lives 1690 to 1800: Crime, Poverty, and Social Policy in the Metropolis" is now online at London Lives.
  • Norfolk
    • FindMyPast and Ancestry have collections of Norfolk poor law union records (1796-1900).
  • Oxford
    • Go to Oxfordshire and use the search screen to access a personal name index to people in the poor law records, 1601-1861. There is also a guide to finding Oxford poor law records located here.
  • Somerset
    • FindMyPast has a collection of Somerset apprenticeship records.
  • Stafford
    • Go to Staffordshire Name Indexes for indexes to apprenticeships (1600-1900) and workhouse admission and discharges (1836-1900).
  • Surrey
    • Go to the Surrey History Centre for poor law indexes.  The website contains indexes of poor law union minute books, application and report books, admission and discharge books. Click here for the guide on what this and other websites have in regards to Surrey poor law records.
  • Sussex
    • Go to the Sussex Record Society for West Sussex poor law records.  Click on "Online Records" at the top and then "West Sussex Database of Poor Law Records."  The main collection they have is settlements and removals (1662-1835).  The database is searchable by surname.  The website also has Winchelsea Poor Law letters (1761-1841) and records (1790-1841).  
  • Warwickshire
    • FindMyPast has a collection of Warwickshire bastardy indexes (1844-1914)
    • Ancestry has multiple collections, including poor law records (1546-1904), bastardy orders (1816-1839), and occupational and quarter session records (1662-1866)
  • Wiltshire
    • FindMyPast has the poor law collections of Wiltshire quarter session calendars (1728-1890) and removal orders (1670-1890)
  • Yorkshire
    • Ancestry has many poor law record collections.  Such collections include: Yorkshire quarter session records (1637-1914) and West Yorkshire removal and settlement records (1689-1866), apprenticeship records (1627-1894), poor law and township records (1663-1914), bastardy records (1690-1914)
    • FindMyPast has a collection of Sheffield, Yorkshire quarter sessions (1880-1912)

To find the records of the New Poor Law, first determine the poor law union to which a parish belonged by searching Workhouses.org.uk.  For a more detailed listing of records, see Jeremy Gibson's Poor Law Union Records in four volumes (FHL 942 P37gj). Volume 4 also provides a listing of the unions and their parishes by county.”