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English Ancestors in Workhouses

WorkhousesThe Poor Law Union of Great Britain referred to special laws enacted about the 1530s for England and Wales to care for the citizens too poor to care of themselves. This system of assistance remained in England and Wales until 1948. Prior to 19th century the aid for the poor was provided by each parish in the form of local workhouses. There were some 1,900 parish workhouses with over 100,000 residents by 1775.

By the 1830s the laws were modified to have a more uniform system of care run by the government. This was achieved by using standardized public workhouses. To be eligibly for entrance to a workhouse, the head of household had to be the poorest of the poor non-workhouse laborer in the area. The able-bodied people of the workhouse then became very cheap labor for nearby factories and farms in exchange for a place to stay, clothing and food. One major disadvantage was that families were split up; children (boys and girls) housed separate from their mothers and from their fathers.

Anyone having English or Welsh ancestors should not be shocked to find over such a long period of English history that a relative might have been in a workhouse. Anyone might have been in a workhouse; the elderly with no one to look after them, widows, the ill, orphans, disabled, handicapped, insane, beside those unable to find work.

The English have traditional been good at keeping records and this was true of those in English and Welsh workhouse. Most records of the 19th and 20th century have the full names, age, the name of the village or town they came from, their occupation or skill ability, plus some additional notes such as being blind.

The National Archives of the United Kingdom has online records for about twenty-three workhouses in certain locations. This is a fairly recent collection added to the online site so not all workhouses are provided. Contacting directly the UK National Archives can offer information on the other workhouses. The records begin in 1834 and run for various years. The English and Welsh locations online are Nottingham, Derbyshire, Northumberland, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Worcestershire, Glamorganshire, Somerset, Yorkshire, Liverpool, Montgomeryshire, Denbighshire, Norfolk, Staffordshire, Buckinghamshire, Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset. Many of the online documents are letters on behalf of individuals to assist their getting into the workhouse or to help keep them out.

Another location to find if an ancestor was in the workhouse are UK Census records for 1841 to 1911. In my own family research I located a second great grandaunt, Phebe Ann Kershaw Anderton, in the 1871 UK census at the District Public Workhouse Hospital in Manchester, England. Here because the name included hospital, she may have been too ill to have her family care for her. She died in 1876.

So check all possibilities and never be surprised at what is uncovered.

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