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" 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.
They are one of the most popular types of offline tools at my local archive centre, the Heritage Hub, Hawick and, although they have not been a source for my own family, I find it fascinating to browse through them.
- 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.
- 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."
So my tip of the day is to contact your appropriate local archives centre - they will hold a wealth of records showing there is genealogical life well beyond the Internet and most offer a remote research service. You never know what might be unearthed to throw light on your ancestors' lives.
With acknowledgement to the Heritage Hub, Hawick for permission to use the image above. www.heartofhawick.co.uk/heritagehub