Thursday, 8 January 2015

A Pauper's Life - A Look at Scottish Poor Law Records

At this time of year, my mind turned to the poem "T'was Christmas Day in the Workhouse"  and this prompted me  to take another look at Scottish Poor Law Records. 

The poem was written in 1879 by George Robert Sims (1847-1922), a campaigning journalist  concerned  with social issues.  In 21 verses it tells  the anguish of an elderly inmate, not celebrating Christmas but recalling this first anniversary of his wife's death in terrible poverty-stricken circumstances.  His bitterness and anger is directed at the patronizing visit by the local gentry dispensing food.  
It is Christmas Day in the Workhouse,and the cold bare walls are bright
With garlands of green and holly and the place is a pleasant sight:
For with clean-washed hands and faces in a long and hungry line
The paupers sit at the tables, for this is the hour they dine.

And the guardians and their ladies, although the wind is east,
Have come in their furs and wrappers, to watch their charges feast;
To smile and be condescending, put pudding on pauper plates,
To be hosts at the workhouse banquet they've paid for - with their rates

You will find the full twenty-one verses HERE. 

The poem had a huge impact in its day and became a popular choice for  dramatic monologue performances - but was also the subject of many a parody..  

Seeing an ancestor described as a "pauper" in a census return conjures up images of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" and a time when the word "poorhouse" (or  "workhouse" in England) struck fear in people living close to destitution.  But for family historians searching for a story beyond the simple names and dates, such a discovery is an  immediate prompt to turn to poor law records - not generally available online.

They are one of the most popular types of offline tools at my local archive centre, the Heritage Hub, Hawick in the Scottish Borders,  and, although they have not been a source for my own family,  I find it fascinating to browse through them. 

Poorhouses were set up in Scotland as a result of the Poor Law (Scotland) Act of 1845 Between 1845 and 1930 over 70 poorhouses were constructed in Scotland  with an additional 90 smaller almshouses in operation. In the Scottish Borders, poorhouses were set up  in five towns serving not only the immediate town but surrounding parishes - hence their name of Combination Poorhouse or Union Poorhouse.  My own village of Earlston in Berwickshire was one of twenty-three parishes  served by Kelso Poorhouse in Roxburghshire - a lesson in research  not to get  too restricted by county boundaries. 

The Victorians  were great bureaucrats and the Heritage Hub holds a large collection of local Poor Law Registers, Poor Relief Applications and Parochial Board Minute Books, many of which can give a mini-biography of an ancestor, in often tragic circumstances, with details of name, address, aged, birthplace, marital status,  occupation, whether disabled and if so how, financial circumstances, and dependents.  Here are some examples which caught my attention:
  • Robert Leck, once a well known clockmaker of Jedburgh, admitted to the poorhouse aged 67, with a pattern of admissions and discharges until the time came when he was "wholly disabled, nearly blind and wholly destitute".  Interestingly when I did a Google search, I found  an illustration of a Robert Leck grandfather clock about to be auctioned in London.
  • The story of Janet Scott had a more positive outcome.  Her admission record in 1877 gives us a glimpse of the desperate situation in which many applicants for poor relief found themselves.  A single mother with  two children and a baby, working as an agricultural  labourer, she  was "wholly disabled by a cart falling on her".  She was on parish relief for three years.  However she also demonstrated her resilience, as  in the 1881 census she was back earning a living, as an Ag. Lab, along with her two eldest daughters.  
Janet Scott's entry in the Jedburgh Union Poorhouse Register, 1877.  
In the collection of  the Heritage Hub, Hawick
Being a "pauper" did not always mean being admitted to the poorhouse,  as those on "out relief" lived in the  community and received support such as clothing, fuel or food, as illustrated in these records from Duns, Berwickshire:

  •  15 year old James Robertson is described as "delicate and deformed by spine curvature and will never be able to do much.  He needs a suit of clothes, 2 pairs of stockings and 2 handkerchiefs.  Allowed. 
  • Mary Burns, also in need of clothing , was granted " 1 frock, 2 yards flannel, 2 yards drugget, 2 pinafores and a  pair of boots."
  • At Melrose, Rosburghshire, a mother and young children were "footsore and weary"  and given help as they made their way from Newcastle to Glasgow to rejoin family  - a distance of 114 miles.
  • Mary Phllips was admitted to the Poorhouse as "this woman's husband deserted her, having absconded to America.  She has 2 children and is about to be confined.  Her parents very poor."
  • The Inspector was not always the hard face of the law.  At Melrose two young children whose mother had run away with another man,  were given a penny to buy a roll and told to return home and send their father.   The record showed six  young children in the family aged from 13 to 3 years old.
  • Rebecca Ballantyne, however, "burdened with 2 illegitimate children" was refused poor relief on the grounds she was able bodied and earning a good wage - 15 shillings a week as a mill worker.
  • In Hawick "Robert Campbell, a weaver, almost disabled by rheumatism applied for relief and was offered admission to the Poorhouse, but declined the offer."
  • "George Wilson, a labourer, wholly disabled by bronchitis,  as certified  by Doctor McLeod, was sent to the Poorhouse on 26th March but left the same on 2nd April."

Most of these records are not available online, so my tip of the day is to contact the appropriate local archives centre, with most offering  a remote research service.  You never know what might be unearthed to throw light on your ancestors' lives.

Take a look  too, at the definitive website that covers  England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland - a compressive, invaluable site, full of information including  transcripts of the 1881 census of staff and inmates. 


I am delighted to continue my involvement  in WorldWide Genealogy Collaboration and welcome  other bloggers joining the community, with thanks to Julie at Anglers Rest  for all her work in coordinating the project. 

My 2014 posts were: 
Bringing  Betty out of the Shadows  - A Research Review

My personal blog is at Family HIstory Fun 


  1. Thank you so much for this in-depth look at Scottish Poor Laws.

    Unlike you, I have found several ancestors who spent some time in poor houses or were called paupers on their death certificate. This has helped me put that into context.

    I really need to go to Scotland to continue my research!

  2. Thank you, Schalene, for your kind comment. Poor law ancestors can provide some fascinating, if sad stories for family history writing.

  3. I do not do Scottish genealogy but this was fascinating !

  4. Very interesting post Sue & thanks for your kind comment. I am delighted you are remaining with us for 2015!

  5. I remember the very large, two storied house that was pointed out to me in rural Michigan as the former poor house. I wonder how similar the systems in MIchigan and Scotland were and if they have records somewhere.

  6. I have a couple in my Scottish on out relief in Argyll who shows up in the Kirk Session records and also my 2xgreat grandfather who died in the Greenock Poorhouse for which there are no extant records :( I also think it's intresting how the fear of the poorhouse has stayed in our vernacular must have been a very real threat and fear for generations.


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