Poor Law

Were any of your ancestors in the Workhouse?

No, you may think, but until the advent of the National Health Service in 1948, the Workhouse Infirmary was one of the few places where medical assistance or care could be obtained free of charge. As a result, many children were born in the Workhouse and many older people ended their days in one.

Union workhouses began to be established from 1840 onwards. Prior to this time the care of the poor fell to individual Church of England parishes. Any records for pre 1840 will be with the Parish Records. If you think your ancestor may have been in a workhouse check on the Union Finder Database - this lists all English and Welsh parishes and gives the name of Union Workhouse which served that parish and the record office where those records are now held. Good luck in your research.

Poor Law Records (called Board of Guardians)

The Victorians were very keen on record keeping and the Unions kept many different types of records for the people who passed through their doors. Some Unions have very extensive surviving records which give a vivid picture of life at the lower end of the wealth scale.

Most records are held at the appropriate County Records Office, but some are also with Local Studies Libraries or City Archives like the London Metropolitan Archives. There are also some records at the Public Record Office at Kew, mainly correspondence files and some staff records as well.

Records vary from Union to Union, for example they all kept Admission and Discharge Registers detailing all the people who entered the workhouse. The first problem to overcome is, have the records survived? Then you will find that the standard and amount of information can be quite variable. Some Admission records are partially indexed, most are not and you simply have to plough through all the records.

What might you find?

Anything from nothing, through a name on a list to a potted personal history.

Staff records, in particular, can be very informative and you may find a document actually signed by your ancestor! Beware, some of the information contained in the records is very direct, there was no such thing as political correctness in Victorian society.

Records relating to children and people classified as lunatics are the most comprehensive.

The Poor Law Union Database

 The database lists all Church of England parishes and many additional places and gives the name of the Union that place belonged to and an indication of which Record Office holds the records for that Union.

Select a letter of the alphabet for the place your are interested in.


The list of place names will open in a new window.

The database contains over 12,000 entries so there are bound to be errors or omissions. I have done my best to identify the correct Union for all places, but some of them had to be best guesses based on the relative location of the place in question.

The Record Offices listed may not hold all the records, for the Union concerned. The Record Office will be able to advise you as to what records there are and where they are held.

The “Poor Law Union Records” books by Jeremy Gibson published by the Federation of Family History Societies give lists of the type of records which have survived and the period they cover. These books should be available in larger libraries.

All Unions have some records at the National Archives (formerly The Public record Office), Kew. Where the PRO is the stated Record Office this indicates that there are no locally held records surviving.

I have used many sources in compiling this database but principally I have used;

  • The Parish Locator Database available on the web at
    The compilers of Parish Locator kindly gave me permission to use their database as the basis for this work.

  • Poor Law Union Records Volumes 1-4 by Jeremy Gibson & others, Published by the Federation of Family History Societies.

  • The Atlas & Index of Parish Registers, edited by CR Humphrey-Smith, published by Phillimore.

  • Crockfords Clerical Directory—1955-56, published annually by the Oxford University Press

  • Index to Parishes, Townships, Hamlets & Places In County Court Districts, compiled by the Lord Chancellors Dept, published by HMSO, 1938

  • AA Road Atlas of the British Isles 2000, published by the AA

  • Bartholomews Gazeteer of Places in Britain, 1986, published by John Bartholomew & Co.

If you find any errors or omissions or have any comments or questions, please e-mail me.


The database is Copyright: Fourbears Research 2001 and may not be reproduced without permission.