Ancestry UK

The Workhouse and Almshouse, Shirley, Middlesex County, Massachusetts

The town of Shirley, Massachusetts was incorporated in 1753. For the next eighty-four years, its paupers were annually distributed among those families that were willing to give them bed, board and nursing, at the least possible expense to the town. At the annual town meetings, the names of the unfortunates were publicly paraded, and they were auctioned off, one after another, by the moderator, to the lowest bidder. Spirituous liquors were frequently provided by the town authorities as a lure to cheap bidding. As a result, the paupers were generally forced into the poorer class of families, into unwholesome rooms, and frequently compelled to subsist on coarse and sometimes unwholesome food.

At a town meeting March, 1763, a proposal was made to provide a residential institution for paupers. A committee was chosen to pursue the scheme, but it came to nothing.

In 1837, the idea was resurrected and a farm purchased at the north of the town as a location for a workhouse and almshouse. The inmates were housed, fed and clothed. Medical care was provided, the young were given secular and religious education, and the able-bodied occupied in farm work. The rules and regulations for the running of the establishment are included below.

Rules for Workhouses and Almshouse, Shirley, Massachusetts, 1841.
© Peter Higginbotham.

In its early years, inmate numbers varied between fifteen and thirty. However, there was then a steady decline in admissions — largely due, it was said, to the progression of temperance reformation. By 1849, there were from three to five inmates. In 1853, a town meeting voted to close and dispose of the establishment and to return to the system of placing paupers with families, though without the use of public auctions. In later years, there was increasing use of pauper institutions run by the county.


The farm recently purchased of Willard Porter and Israel H. Spaulding, for a pauper establishment for the town of Shirley, with all the buildings thereon, and all the privileges thereto belonging, are hereby established and constituted a workhouse and almshouse, pursuant to the laws of the Commonwealth, and are to be under the following orders and regulations:


1st. All poor and indigent persons who may require relief at the expense of the public, whether lawfully settled in this town or not, shall be relieved and supported in the almshouse as paupers; and no inmate shall be allowed to leave the establishment without the consent of the master or one of the overseers.

2d. All persons who, being able of body to work, and, not having estate or means otherwise to maintain themselves, refuse or neglect to work; all persons who lead a dissolute, vagrant life, and exercise no ordinary calling or lawful business; and all such persons as spend their time and property in public houses, to the neglect of their proper business, or otherwise misspend what they earn, to the impoverishment of themselves and their families, or who are likely to become chargeable to this town or Commonwealth; and, generally, all such persons as are, by law, liable to be sent thither, may be committed to and confined in the workhouse.


Persons of the first class may be committed or removed to the house by an order from either of the overseers of the poor; and whenever, in the opinion of the overseers, any such person or persons can support themselves, they may be discharged.

Those enumerated in the second class must be proceeded against according to the sixth section of the 143d chapter of the "Revised Statutes;" and, on due conviction of any of the offences legally subjecting them thereto, may be sentenced to the workhouse, there to be kept at work for a term not exceeding six months; and, whenever a majority of the overseers are satisfied that the object of commitment has been accomplished, the person or persons so committed may be discharged.


The overseers of the poor of the town for the time being, shall have the government of this establishment: shall have authority to appoint a master and other needful assistants, and physician: prescribe their duties, and agree upon the compensation of their services: any and all of whom may be removed at their pleasure.

Every person committed to said house, if in suitable health and able to work, shall be kept diligently employed in some profitable labor: and no person shall be exempted from work without a certificate from the physician of the establishment; and if any inmate shall be idle, perverse, or disorderly, he or she may be punished by solitary confinement, and kept on bread and water for and during such term of time as the overseers, and, in their absence, the master, may think proper, not exceeding ten days at a time: or any other punishment, not repugnant to the laws of the Commonwealth, may be substituted, when, in the judgment of the overseers, the good of the subject and the town requires it.

A memorandum of all punishments, and for what offences, shall be made on the register.

All the inmates of the house shall have the privilege of useful reading, and of hearing and receiving such instruction as may be provided for them on the Sabbath.

Every child belonging to said establishment shall be suitably educated in the district school in which it is located, according to the age and capacity of such child.


The overseers shall suitably stock the farm, provide farming utensils, mechanical tools, and such other apparatus as may be thought necessary for the right employment of the inmates of the house: and an exact inventory of which, and appraisal of all property belonging to the establishment, shall be annually made on or about the last day of February, which shall be delivered into the hands of the master, and his receipt taken therefor; and a copy of the same shall be laid before the town at their annual meeting in March, together with an accurate account of all receipts and expenditures of the establishment during the year.

They shall hold a meeting at the house, on the first Saturday of each month, for the purpose of examining into the conduct and treatment of the inmates, the expenditures and condition of the establishment, the violations of the orders and regulations, and all matters in any way appertaining to the interest, government, and management of the same; and shall keep a book in which shall be entered the names of the overseers present, and all orders and directions given at such meeting.

The overseers shall, from time to time, fix a suit able bill of fare for the subjects of the house, distinguishing, as far as may be, between such as are committed for idleness or disorderly conduct, and such as are placed there from age, incapacity, sickness, or other providential events beyond human control. " This last class of inmates shall at all times receive that kind and humane attention, in sickness and health, which their unfortunate situation may require."


The master shall have the care of all the property of the institution, for which he shall be accountable whenever called upon by the overseers.

He shall not purchase for, or dispose of any property belonging to, the establishment, without the consent of the overseers.

He shall have the immediate care and control of all persons employed or confined in the house, and shall govern and employ them at his best discretion, subject to these orders and regulations, and such others as he may from time to time receive from the overseers.

He shall keep a correct register of the names of all persons committed to his care, specifying 'the times and causes of commitment, and the times and manner of discharge: together with all such facts as may come to his knowledge, in relation to settlement, and the liability of kindred for his or her support.

He shall keep an account of the labor performed by each inmate of the workhouse, and of the expenses of his or her support, that legal right and impartial justice may be rendered to every one, on a final adjustment, when discharged from the house.

It shall be the duty of the master vigilantly to inspect the moral conduct of all persons under his care, to preserve decorum of language and behavior, and enforce personal cleanliness and orderly sobriety.

No ardent spirits shall be kept or used by the inmates of the house without the permission of the master, with the advice of the physician or an overseer.

It shall be the duty of the physician to keep a memorandum of his visits, of the diseases of the inmates, their progress and treatment; and he shall advise the master and overseers of the proper diet of the inmates, and grant certificates to such as, in his opinion, ought to be exempted from labor.

At a meeting of the overseers of the poor, November 11th, 1837, it was agreed to adopt the foregoing orders and regulations for the government of the workhouse and almshouse, and that the same be submitted to the town for their acceptance and approval.

Overseers of the Poor
of the
Town of Shirley.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.

  • No information.


  • Chandler, Seth (1883) History of the Town of Shirley, Massachusetts from Its Early Settlement to A.D. 1882. (Shirley)


[Top of Page] [Home Page]

Ancestry UK

* * * Amazon US For US readers Amazon US * * *