Introduction to Workhouse Records and Archives
The workhouse was a major element of Britain's poor relief system which, from the end of the sixteenth century, provided publicly funded and administered assistance for local residents who could not support themselves.
If you are interested in researching the history of a particular workhouse, or in tracing records for a person who may have been in a workhouse, a wide variety of records and other material may be of interest to you. Potential sources include:
- Central records repositories, e.g. the UK National Archives and the General Register Office
- Local, county, and metropolitan record offices
- Local and family history study centres
- Specialist academic and medical archives
- Parliamentary Papers
- Old newspapers and trade papers
- Old local and trade directories
- Documents in private ownership
As well as the original documents, a growing number of records have been transcribed by commercial organisations, family and local history societies, academic projects, and various voluntary projects. The resulting data may then be accessible online or via a data CD, although a charge for access is made in many cases.
In England and Wales, a major reform in the administration of poor relief took place in 1834. After that date, poor relief administration was through groupings of parishes known as Poor Law Unions, each of which had its own large workhouse. For poor relief and workhouse records, 1834 marks a significant change. (Comparable changes took place in Ireland in 1838, and in Scotland in 1845.) Because of this, you may often see references to 'Pre-1834' and 'Post-1834' records.
As well as the other web pages in this section (see the 'Records & Resources' section of the menu-bar at the left), a nunber of books give good coverage of records relating to the poor, including:
- Tracing Your Pauper Ancestors by Robert Burlison (2009)
- Pauper Ancestors by David Hawkings (2011)
- Poor Law Records for Family Historians by Simon Fowler (2011)
- Poor Law Documents Before 1834 by Anne Cole (2000)
- Poor Law Union Records by Jeremy Gibson et al.
A large number of books relating to the history of specific unions and workhouses are listed on the separate Booklist web page.
Family historians who are new to the subject may find it helpful to consult one of the various general online introductory guides listed below:
- Federation of Family History Societies
- BBC Family History
- Society of Genealogists
- The former UK Family History Centre
For a selection of books providing introductions to family history, see my Online Bookstore.
If you cannot undertake researches yourself, the Society of Genealogists produces a useful leaflet on Employing a Professional Researcher.
For further information on more specific aspects of workhouse records, use the options in 'Records & Resources' menu section at the left of the screen.
Unless otherwise indicated, this page () is copyright Peter Higginbotham. Contents may not be reproduced without permission.