Poorhouse and Almshouse


Almshouses and Bede Houses

Prior to 1834, each parish was responsible for its own poor. That worked well when economic times were good, but served poorly when times were bad. In some cases, two or more parishes would pool their resources, as in East and West Allington, or a group of parishes would commit to build a shared Almshouse. It was the Lord of the Manor's task to find work for able-bodied poor. Others were reduced to begging and perhaps an annual gift from a Trust. Sometimes old houses were set aside in the village for "six old poor women" or something similar. These were generally called Almshouses, and may have included a small garden and an animal pen.

A Bede House was a type of almshouse run to a set of strict rules, typically run by a church. "Bede" is Old English or Saxon for "priest". Each Bedesman (or woman) was given a daily allowance of one penny plus a weekly or monthly allotment of clothing and fuel (normally coal), for which they lived by a timetable of prayer and manual work.

Very few records exist from these times, other than references to funds contributed by trusts set up by wealthy landowners or local clergy. The names of the receiving poor may appear in a parish chest document, but no law mandated that any records be kept or retained.

A good record of Lincolnshire Almshouses can be found in the book: "Lincolnshire Almshouses - Nine Centuries of Charitable Housing," by Linda CRUST, publ. by the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire, paperback, 80 pages, ISBN: 0-948639-38-5, selling for around £13.

There are still almshouses functioning in Lincolnshire. There is an active Almshouse Association and they publish a booklet on their work.

Union Poorhouses

With the passing of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment, Union Workhouses were established. Each kept admission and discharge records. In addition, the infirmaries often kept their own records on the sick.


Deaths in the Workhouses

The deceased from a Workhouse or Infirmary may be buried back in the home parish or in the one local to the institution, so check both for burial records. Many paupers were taken away after death by friends (this often means relatives) to be buried at a place of their choice.

It was decided, shortly after setting up the Poor Law Unions, that the pauper's place of settlement (parish) paid for the funeral whereever it took place. It should be possible to find mention of a pauper's burial in the parish Overseers' Accounts or the Vestry Minutes if they were recorded and if those records still exist.

In 1848, a change to the above policy allowed for the burial of "wandering" paupers (tramps, etc.) to be paid out of the Common Fund for the Union.

Starting in March, 1866, anyone dying in the workhouse would be buried in the parish from which he was removed to the Union.

Workhouse Death Registers, where they exist, do have a column for "where buried" which is more often than not filled in and contains such information as when the burial took place and where, whether or not relatives or other persons or organisations took care of (and presumably covered the cost of) the burial etc. In some cases, people were buried by organisations such as the Oddfellows.

Here is a list of abbreviations of the people and organisations that organised the paupers' burials - it is the list of abbreviations used in the published index: [Anne COLE]

  1. BC = By Council
  2. BF = By friends
  3. BH = By husband
  4. BL = British Legion
  5. BS = Blind Society
  6. C&BL = Council & British Legion
  7. C&OE = Council & own estate
  8. C&Rel = Council & relatives
  9. NC = Norwegian Consul (there is only one of these)
  10. OE = Own estate
  11. Own Ins. = Own Insurance
  12. PC = Pension Committee

How did "Poor Relief" work?

These notes from Anne COLE help explain the "relief" process:

All paupers were supposed to approach the Relieving Officer of the district in which they resided if they were in need of relief - that relief could be outside the Union (Out relief) if they had a medical certificate from a medical officer of the Union, or if they had been entered in the Medical Officer's book. I suspect that, as there were only two relieving officers for the whole of the Stamford Union, the very first approach would have been to the overseer of the poor of the parish in which they resided, and he would have then contacted the relieving officer.

No one could enter the workhouse without an "order", I've seen this called a "ticket" in settlement examinations, with the exception of vagrants (people travelling who "put up for the night" in the workhouse and had to perform some kind of work before leaving the next morning).

Once in the workhouse:

  1. If their settlement was in one of the parishes within the Union [by Union I mean the group of parishes covered by a particular Poor Law Union ]- the same parishes incidentally as in the registration districts of the same name] their maintenance was paid for by the parish to which they belonged, in other words the parish in which their legal settlement was.
  2. If their settlement was unknown, they would be sworn to their settlement [i.e. examined by a magistrate - settlement examination] and once this had been done the clerk of the Board of Guardians for the workhouse in which they were residing would write to the clerk of the Union in which their settlement was thought to be stating the particulars (I'm learning workhouse speak!!) of the case.
  3. That Union would then investigate the case and if the pauper was "acknowledged" i.e. the pauper was accepted as one of theirs, they could either be removed to that Union or their maintenance/out relief would be paid by that Union.
  4. If the abovesaid Union did not think the pauper was "one of theirs" they would usually ask for an order of removal for the pauper(s). This would then enable the case to come to court through an appeal against the order, and the case would be finally settled at Quarter Sessions (hence all the removal orders in the Quarter Sessions files).

To add to Anne's comments above, it should be noted that the Unions became a handy tool for parishes and government officials to deal with mentally disturbed individuals. In those days, the term "lunatic" was applied to a range of mental problems. These individuals were evaluated, and if they could be adequatelly kept in the workhouse, that's where they were housed. For more severe cases, the Union would move them to an asylum, sometimes contracting with asylums out-of-county for their care. For more information on these institutions, see our:

Since most of the workhouses had an infirmary wing or building, it is not unusual to find women entering the workhouse to have their babies, then returning to their families. The mothers weren't "abandoned" by their families, but found a safe haven and experienced care for the birthing.

The best place to research Poor Law Records is the Lincolnshire Archives, starting with the Archives booklet "Poor Law Unions" which lists all surviving material from Lincolnshire Poor Law Unions. There is a closure period for these registers of 100 years. Therefore the registers for 1911 would not be available for research until 2011. Here are the details of the earliest date for surviving admission/discharge registers for the Lincolnshire Workhouses (Note: If there is a link below, it indicates additional records or historical data on the workhouse.):

There are of course other types of records for all the above Unions, and they fall under the 100-year closure period also. Here's what the "Gibson Guide to Poor Law Union Records, volume 2" tells us is available for the Bourne Poorhouse at the Lincolnshire Archives:

  • Admission and discharge books 1836-1930 (gaps)
  • Application and report book (part) 1854-1856
  • Minutes of the board of guardians 1837-1930
  • Parochial ledgers 1857-1859
  • In letters 1849-1853
  • Poor law board letters 1855-1858
  • Service registers 1857-1903

And at the PRO KEW, there are:

  • Correspondence 1834-1900 [MH12/6657-6675]
  • Staff register 1837-1921 [MH9/3]

For the Boston Workhouse, the Minute Books of the Board of Guardians have been transcribed up to 1901. The Workhouse death registers have been published by the Lincolnshire FHS.

For the Bourne Workhouse, the Minute Books of the Board of Guardians have been transcribed from 1837 to 1842 by the Lincolnshire FHS and are available printed or on fiche.

For the Gainsborough Workhouse, an extract from the Minute Books of the Board of Guardians is available from the LFHS (1845-1855 and 1858-1868 and 1868-1885).

For the Grimsby Workhouse, the Scartho Road Hospital death register for 1894 - 1903 is at the North Lincolnshire Record Office. Most Grimsby Workhouse records are kept in the North East Lincolnshire Archives, not at Lincoln.

For Holbeach, The Lincolnshire FHS has published the Workhouse Minutes for 1836 to 1880.

For Horncastle, only the Workhouse Minutes for 1837 to 1914 have survived.

Crowland parish comes under Peterborough Union and there are a large number of admission/discharge registers for this Union at Northamptonshire Record Office. Published transcriptions are available at the Federation of Family History Societies Bookstore, which allows purchase by Credit Card.

Lincoln Union Workhouse burials 1882-1889 will be available on the Federated Family History Societies Pay Per View site starting November 2003. The 1911-1927 deaths, now on microfiche, will also be at this site.

For Spalding, the Lincolnshire FHS has published the Workhouse Minute extracts for 1857 to 1870.

For Stamford, the Lincolnshire FHS has published the Workhouse Minute extracts for 1835 to 1862 in booklet form.

Hull Union Workhouse (Yorkshire):

Other Resources

Workhouse Rules

The Workhouse was a dreaded place, often seen by the elderly as a "place to die." Rules at the workhouse were strict (these are provided by Suzannah FOAD):

  1. It was forbidden to speak when silence was ordered.
  2. Profane language was forbidden.
  3. It was forbidden to insult or revile another person or officer.
  4. You could not refuse to work.
  5. Cleanliness (bathing) was mandatory.
  6. You could not fain or pretend sickness.
  7. No gambling or games of chance.
  8. You could not enter other wards.
  9. If sent on an errand or out to work, you could not return after the appointed time.

Anyone breaking these rules was said to be 'refractory'. Within certain limits the Master was empowered to punish the offender by ordering a bread and water diet or enter the name of the inmate in the punishment book to be dealt with at the next board meeting. Damage or theft of workhouse property was always regarded as a more serious offense than lapses of behavior!

The guardians also took the unusual step of offering rewards for the capture of men deserting their wives and children in the workhouse.

Punishments were often administered by withholding some part of the inmate's rations. "Feb 1840, Governor stated to the board he had detected Mary S stealing soap from the workhouse. Case investigated and statement found correct. Ordered that she be deprived of her allowance of beer as a washerwoman for one week."

Behaviour problems among the younger children were usually dealt with by withholding the treacle or butter which made more palatable their portion of 'seconds' bread. Older boys could also loose privileges such as being allowed to work in the vegetable garden or otherwise caned, 'receiving stripes on the hand'.

Disorderly conduct among the men and women inmates made them liable for a week in the refractory ward on a bread and water diet. This happened to George M (in the Thanet Workhouse), but when he afterwards broke '...24 panes of glass", a favourite pastime using the loose stones in the yard, he was sent to prison for a month. The yards were eventually "bouldered' to prevent this happening.

There was strict segregation of the sexes, even to the extent of raising the dividing walls between their respective airing yards to above head height.

The prison-like atmosphere and the necessity of living in the close proximity to their charges, subjected the staff to stress. Even a brief period of leave was not theirs by right and had to be applied for and sanctioned by the board. The Master was held to account for all money transactions down to the last farthing. The Schoolteachers, whose working day begun when the children rose at six and ended when they retired for the night, especially resented his superiority. Frequent altercations between the parties inevitably brought them before the Guardians who ordered more and more books to be kept, which would better define their areas of responsibility.