Poorhouse and Almshouse


Almshouses and Bede Houses

Prior to 1834, each parish was responsible for its own poor. That worked well when economic times were good, but served poorly when times were bad. In some cases, two or more parishes would pool their resources, as in East and West Allington in Lincolnshire, or a group of parishes would commit to build a shared Almshouse. It was the Lord of the Manor's task to find work for able-bodied poor (kind of like "Nobless Oblige". Others were reduced to begging and perhaps an annual gift from a Trust. Sometimes old houses were set aside in the village for "six old poor women" or something similar. These were generally called Almshouses, and may have included a small garden and an animal pen.

A Bede House was a type of almshouse run to a set of strict rules, typically run by a church. "Bede" is Old English or Saxon for "priest". Each Bedesman (or woman) was given a daily allowance of one penny plus a weekly or monthly allotment of clothing and fuel (normally coal), for which they lived by a timetable of prayer and manual work.

Very few records exist from these times, other than references to funds contributed by trusts set up by wealthy landowners or local clergy. The names of the receiving poor may appear in a parish chest document, but no law mandated that any records be kept or retained.

Union Poorhouses

With the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment, Union Workhouses were established. Each kept admission and discharge records. In addition, the infirmaries often kept their own records on the sick.


The deceased from a Workhouse or Infirmary may be buried back in the home parish or in the one local to the institution, so check both for burial records. Many paupers were taken away after death by friends (this often means relatives) to be buried at a place of their choice.

These notes from Anne Cole help explain the "relief" process:

All paupers were supposed to approach the Relieving Officer of the district in which they resided if they were in need of relief - that relief could be outside the Union (Out relief) if they had a medical certificate from a medical officer of the Union, or if they had been entered in the Medical Officer's book. I suspect that the very first approach would have been to the overseer of the poor of the parish in which they resided, and he would have then contacted the relieving officer.

No-one could enter the workhouse without an "order", I've seen this called a "ticket" in settlement examinations, with the exception of vagrants (people travelling who "put up for the night" in the workhouse and had to perform some kind of work before leaving the next morning).

Once in the workhouse:

  1. If their settlement was in one of the parishes within the Union [by Union I mean the group of parishes covered by a particular Poor Law Union - the same parishes incidentally as in the registration districts of the same name] their maintenance was paid for by the parish to which they belonged, in other words the parish in which their legal settlement was.
  2. If their settlement was unknown, they would be sworn to their settlement [i.e. examined by a magistrate - settlement examination] and once this had been done the clerk of the Board of Guardians for the workhouse in which they were residing would write to the clerk of the Union in which their settlement was thought to be stating the particulars (I'm learning workhouse speak!!) of the case.
  3. That Union would then investigate the case and if the pauper was "acknowledged" i.e. the pauper was accepted as one of theirs, they could either be removed to that Union or their maintenance/out relief would be paid by that Union.
  4. If the abovesaid Union did not think the pauper was "one of theirs" they would usually ask for an order of removal for the pauper(s). This would then enable the case to come to court through an appeal against the order, and the case would be finally settled at Quarter Sessions (hence all the removal orders in the Quarter Sessions files).

To add to Anne's comments above, it should be noted that the Unions became a handy tool for parishes and government officials to deal with mentally disturbed individuals. In those days, the term "lunatic" was applied to a range of mental problems. These individuals were evaluated, and if they could be adequatelly kept in the workhouse, that's where they were housed. For more severe cases, the Union would move them to an asylum, sometimes contracting with asylums out-of-county for their care.

Since most of the workhouses had an infirmary wing or building, it is not unusual to find women entering the workhouse to have their babies, then returning to their families. The mothers weren't "abandoned" by their families, but found a safe haven and experienced care for the birthing.

The best place to research Poor Law Records is the Nottinghamshire Archives. There is a closure period for these registers of 100 years. Therefore the registers for 1911 would not be available for research until 2011.

There are of course other types of records for all Unions, and they fall under the 100-year closure period also. See the "Gibson Guide to Poor Law Union Records, volume 2"

Other Resources

Workhouse Rules

The Workhouse was a dreaded place, often seen by the elderly as a "place to die." Rules at the workhouse were strict (these are provided by Suzannah Foad):

  1. It was forbidden to speak when silence was ordered.
  2. Profane language was forbidden.
  3. It was forbidden to insult or revile another person or officer.
  4. You could not refuse to work.
  5. Cleanliness (bathing) was mandatory.
  6. You could not fain or pretend sickness.
  7. No gambling or games of chance.
  8. You could not enter other wards.
  9. If sent on an errand or out to work, you could not return after the appointed time.

Anyone breaking these rules was said to be 'refractory'. Within certain limits the Master was empowered to punish the offender by ordering a bread and water diet or enter the name of the inmate in the punishment book to be dealt with at the next board meeting. Damage or theft of workhouse property was always regarded as a more serious offence than lapses of behavior!

The guardians also took the unusual step of offering rewards for the capture of men deserting their wives and children in the workhouse.

Punishments were often administered by withholding some part of the inmate's rations. "Feb 1840, Governor stated to the board he had detected Mary S stealing soap from the workhouse. Case investigated and statement found correct. Ordered that she be deprived of her allowance of beer as a washerwoman for one week."

Behaviour problems among the younger children were usually dealt with by withholding the treacle or butter which made more palatable their portion of 'seconds' bread. Older boys could also loose privileges such as being allowed to work in the vegetable garden or otherwise caned, 'receiving stripes on the hand'.

Disorderly conduct among the men and women inmates made them liable for a week in the refractory ward on a bread and water diet. This happened to George M (in the Thanet Workhouse), but when he afterwards broke '...24 panes of glass", a favourite pastime using the loose stones in the yard, he was sent to prison for a month. The yards were eventually "bouldered' to prevent this happening.

There was strict segregation of the sexes, even to the extent of raising the dividing walls between their respective airing yards to above head height.

The prison-like atmosphere and the necessity of living in the close proximity to their charges, subjected the staff to stress. Even a brief period of leave was not theirs by right and had to be applied for and sanctioned by the board. The Master was held to account for all money transactions down to the last farthing. The Schoolteachers, whose working day begun when the children rose at six and ended when they retired for the night, especially resented his superiority. Frequent altercations between the parties inevitably brought them before the Guardians who ordered more and more books to be kept, which would better define their areas of responsibility.