The Poor Law Act of 1601 placed the responsibility for poor relief in the hands of each parish. Overseers of the Poor in each parish collected poor rates from occupiers of land and property. The money collected was then used to help the destitute. For example by apprenticing the childen of paupers. The aim was to try to prevent their children from becoming an additional burden on the parish when they grew up.
One example of individual parishes or Unions recognising the need to balance the level of financial assistance with the wider economic situation was the Speenhamland System of 1795. This created a sliding scale for the amount of outdoor relief, which related to the price of grain. The system under the Old Poor Law created several problems:
The system of payment was seen to encourage the growth of the 'idle poor'. those who could work, but refused.
Employers often paid deliberately low wages knowing that the Union or parish would supplement the wage.
Expenditure on poor relief was spiralling out of control because it was related to rapidly increasing demand rather than supply.
A Royal Commission in 1832, on whose report the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was based, addressed the problems of the Old Poor Law. The Commissioners found that the problem was not one of poverty, or shortage of money, but pauperism. This idleness and drunkenness posed a threat to the fabric of society. The Commission concluded that the most effective way to eradicate pauperism at minium cost was to make conditions in the workhouse deliberately worse than those of the 'independent labourer of the lowest class'. The recommendations were to be implemented by a national Commission. Poor Law Unions were to be created by grouping together parishes, and those Unions would be the responsibility of a Board of Guardians. The Guardians were then responsible for the administration of poor relief for the locality, rather than leaving it in the hands of individual parishes and townships.
The two Poor Law Unions of Wigan and Leigh covered the Wigan Metro area:
The Union was established on 2 February 1837 and included the twenty parishes listed below.
Abram, Ashton-in-Makerfield, Aspull, Billinge, Chapel End, Billinge Higher End, Blackrod, Dalton, Haigh, Hindley, Ince-in-Makerfield, Orrell, Parbold, Pemberton, Shevington, Standish-with-Langtree, Upholland, Wigan, Winstanley, Worthington, Wrightington.
The Union was subdivided into districts, each with a Relieving Officer and Collector; the records for Wigan, Standish and Hindley district officers survive. The Board of Guardians dissolved in 1929 and the workhouse premises in Frog Lane in Wigan was converted into a Welfare House.
The Union was established on 26 January 1837. It comprised of an area covering the whole of the ancient parish of Leigh and part of that of Winwick.
Astley, Atherton, Bedford, Culcheth, Lowton, Pennington, Tyldesley with Shakerly, Westleigh.
There were workhouses in existence in Pennington, Culcheth, Tyldesley and Lowton, but a central workhouse at Atherleigh replaced these in the 1850s.
The bulk of records that are found in local records offices are those that were generated by the daily operations of Poor Law Unions such as minute books and receipt books. These records are of interest to a wide variety of historians: economic, social and political. Family Historians will probably be most interested in those records that contain personal information. Records that are most likely to contain substantial number of names of the general are listed below and can be viewed by appointment at the Archives in Leigh. If you wish to view the documents please contact the Archivist to make an appointment quoting the relevant reference codes below:
| Out-Relief Order Books || 1891 - 1897 || G/Wi/27 |
|Claims for Expenditure for the maintenance of lunatics || 1886 - 1891 || G/Wi/19 |
|Index to labour certificates for children || 1883 - 1888 || G/Wi/43 |
|Poll Books for election of Guardians || 1890 - 1892 || G/Wi/52 |
|Standish District Application and Report Books || 1875 - 1878 1881 - 1882 1902 || G/Wi/57b/134 |
|Standish District Outdoor Relief Lists (incomplete) || 1874 - 1902 || G/Wi/57b/136 |
|Wigan Outdoor Relief Lists || Sept 1894 || G/Wi/57c/136 |
|Hindley District Collector of the Guardians Receipt and Payment Book || 1892 - 1898 || G/Wi/57a/148 |
|Abram township Collector of the Guardians Receipt and Payment Book || 1848 - 1867 || G/Wi/57b/148 |
|Vaccinators' Register || 1899 - 1909 || G/Wi/155 |
|* Register of Inmates in the workhouse || 1906 - 1949|| |
Leigh Poor Law Union
| * Asylum Reception Order || 1892 - 1940 || G/Lei/45 |
|* Removal Orders || 1898 - 1929 || G/Lei/48 |
* These records are closed for 75 years.