How to research the lives of your workhouse ancestors
There is a wide variety of records and other material available for those who wish to trace an ancestor who may have been in a workhouse as a child including The National Archives ( TNA), local, county and metropolitan record offices and local history and family study centres.
Records of the activities of the individual Poor Law unions are usually found locally, but TNA holds the documents on their relations with the Poor Law Commissioners. MH12: “Correspondence between the Poor Law Commissioners and individual unions 1834-1900”, includes lists of people vaccinated against smallpox, those who were given money to emigrate, and reports on workhouse schools from the Poor Law Inspectors.
County record offices hold Guardians of the Poor minute books, admission and discharge registers, infirmary records, birth and death/ burial registers. To track down the addresses of record offices in London, the rest of the UK and the Channel Islands that might hold Poor Law union records detailing the lives of your ancestors, go to workhouses.org. uk/records/ archives.shtml. You can also search for records on TNA’s Discovery Catalogue ( http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk).
The London Metropolitan Archives holds most of London’s workhouse records and can be searched at search.lma.gov.uk. However, Ancestry, working with LMA, hosts much of this material in its collection: “London, England, Poor Law and Board of Guardian Records, 1430-1930” – which covers registers of creed, school, apprentices, servants, children, and inmates, among others; and London, England, Church of England Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906 which includes registers of births and baptisms that occurred in workhouses operated by the Boards of Guardians.
Findmypast ( findmypast.co.uk) also holds a lot of useful material including London Poor Law records (1581-1899), and datasets for Dublin, Westminster, Lincolnshire, Cheshire, Monmouth and Surrey among others.
Free websites that are also very useful include the Gen Guide ( genguide. co.uk). This gives details of genealogical sources – for example where to find apprenticeship indentures, bastardy documents, vaccination registers and certificates, and workhouse records, which could hold information about children who lived in poverty.
The number and type of institutions that looked after disadvantaged children increased as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, ranging from orphanages, through to approved and industrial schools. Each establishment kept its own admission/discharge and other records, with inmates also being recorded during their short initial stay in the workhouse. The Children’s Homes website childrenshomes.org.uk gives a useful overview to the provision of disadvantaged children’s care in the UK, with links to where records can be found.
If you want a book to refer to, The Workhouse Encyclopedia by Peter Higginbotham – the originator of the workhouse and children’s homes websites mentioned – is a good guide containing information on workhouse locations, handy websites and archive details, maps, original workhouse publications and a bibliography.
Lastly, to get a real flavour of what it must have been like for your ancestors, visit Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk which has just just reopened its doors after a £1.8 million redevelopment.
Charlie Chaplin’s workhouse admission can be found on Ancestry