In search of the poor

A wealth of genealogical data can be revealed by the records of the poor, and Alex Wood unearths some fascinating case studies from the past, giving a glimpse of the lives of the extreme poverty-stricken in 19th-century Scotland.

No other documents provide such detail about the poor in Victorian Scotland, as do the Poor Law records, often covering three generations in the one document.  The unchurched poor, who often failed to register their children prior to statutory registration in 1855; the Irish and Highland immigrants to the cities, often Gaelic speaking, and wary of officialdom; the victims of ill-health, poor sanitation and limited education; all had their brief moment of articulacy.  Even the stories of the illiterate were, for once, recorded.  When the regulations of officialdom forced them – as the price of the very meagre support they were to receive – to tell their stories, none would have dreamed that future generations would unearth such genealogical wealth from their stark poverty.

The Scottish Poor Law Act of 1845 moved responsibility for the administration of poor relief from the church to Parish Boards.  The records of these Parish Boards offer genealogists unique details of the poor in Scotland.

Glasgow’s Mitchell Library is a treasure trove.  Its Glasgow Collection includes books, pamphlets, periodical publications, maps, plans, pictorial illustrations, Church records and, above all else, indexed copies of all Glasgow’s applications for Poor Law relief.

The Poor Law Records in the Mitchell represent the applications made to three Poor Law Boards, the City Poor Law Board and the Barony Poor Law Board (which together covered the bulk of the original city north of the Clyde) and the Govan Combination, a joint Poor Law Board covering Govan and Gorbals parishes, south of the river.

Applications to all three boards were similar and Poor Law inspector who drew up the original application attempted to identify, for each applicant, the name, address, place of birth, age, occupation, dependants, date and place of marriage, parents’ names, religion and details of their employment, earnings, outgoings and circumstances.

Such documents are particularly valuable in establishing the genealogy of Irish immigrants to Glasgow, the greatest number of whom had arrived in the late 1840s and early 1850s as a result of the potato famine.  William McConnell, arrived in Glasgow, at some point between 1848 and 1851.  His poor law application (see illustration) in 1881 however, gives details otherwise unobtainable.

It notes him as 77 years of age; born at Killyverry, Co Derry, Dysart (sic), Ireland; married; a joiner; and a Protestant.  It records his parents as John McConnell, a farmer, and Agnes Milne (both dead) and that he left Ireland 33 or 34 years ago, i.e. about 1847.  It notes all his children, their ages, occupations, addresses, marital status and number of children.  The Poor Law application records his residences, with number of years in each, for the previous 29 years.  Few other documents would offer such wealth of detail.

Although the place of birth, Killyverry, Dysart, did sound somewhat unlikely since Dysart is in fact a parish in Fife, in Scotland, Irish sources however indicated that Killyverry is a township on the outskirts of Garvagh, County Derry, in the parish of Desertoghill.  (Further research in records in that parish confirmed most of the above details and provided further details of William McConnell’s Irish family.)

McConnell’s son, Samuel, married Agnes McKill.  Her grandfather, Alexander McKill, a shoemaker, had also applied for Poor Law relief.  The inspector’s report on Alexander McKill in 1866, as well as providing various family details, illustrates the moral judgements which were an integral part of the administration of the Poor Law.  McKill is described as a ‘pauper (who) don’t look so old as he says.  Can earn more than he says (12/6d weekly).  Has applied for increase repeatedly and refused.’

The inspector’s sometimes poorly spelled report continues however to illustrate clearly why he considers McKill to be one of the undeserving poor: ‘Dr Lindsay met him Wednesday 31 Ult in a Beastly State of intoxication, swearing and roaring to the annoyance of the Leiges.’  It goes without saying that on that occasion McKill’s application was refused.

Similar judgements were made in respect of McKill’s son, Robert, also a shoemaker and the father of Agnes McKill, who first applied for relief in August 1859 as a result of being unable to work: ‘He is ill 2 weeks with Boils or absseses and says has been wholy unable to work or to sit last 2 weeks.  His wife binds when he is well but has no work when he is ill.’

By February 1860 Robert McKill had obviously overcome the problems of his posterior abscesses but his problems were, if anything greater: ‘This application is made by his wife in consequence of her husband being sent to prison on Tuesday last, the 31st ult, as a deserter from the 93rd Regiment.  It appears that after a fit of drink in December last he had gone and enlisted and then went into concealment until he was apprehended on Tuesday last and his wife and children are now destitute.  They have now another child since my last visit.’

If the judgements of the inspectors could be harsh and unforgiving in respect of applicants whom they believed to be undeserving, there are also scattered judgements in an altogether different vein.  Jean Wood, nee McDonald, applied for poor law relief in 1877 when she was 70 years old.  She had been a widow for some 30 years.  Her trade or occupation is given as ‘baking oatcakes’.  The applicant ‘has a small shop but her drawings are trifling.  Certified unfit from debility.’ 

Several testimonials to her honesty and hard-work are in the poor law file: ‘The bearer Mrs Jane Wood is a widow.  She is honest, and deserving and is worthy of your kind consideration.  John McAulay, 67 Norfolk St.’

‘Glasgow 27th March 1877   The bearer Mrs Jane Wood has been a Tenant in our property 31 So Coburg St for the last Seventeen years – She has been upright & honest & hardworking for an independent livelihood & is well deserving of consideration.  Peter McEwan, 9 Minerva St.’

Jean Wood, nee McDonald, still seeking to earn an honest living in her 70s by baking and selling oatcakes, was patently, unlike Alexander and Robert McKill, perceived as one of the deserving poor. Yet, even her application offers some insights into the workings of the system.  She declares her son, Alexander Wood, to be a labourer.  In fact he was an iron-dresser, a skilled tradesman.  It may well have been that even such an honest and deserving character as Jean Wood knew better than to state her son’s full earning capacity lest he be expected to support her in her poverty.

The Poor Law records in the Mitchell Library (which cover parts of several other west of Scotland counties as well as the City of Glasgow) have two great strengths.  Firstly the original application forms, which were updated for subsequent claims, have been meticulously maintained and it is to them, with all their wealth of detail, that access can be gained. Secondly they are indexed by name, approximate date of birth and place of birth and the index is available on computers in the Library.  Access is therefore easy and quick.

Poor Law records have been maintained in other Scottish resources.  Aberdeen City Archives maintain Poor Law records for several of the former north-eastern Scottish counties which now comprise Aberdeenshire.  A few scattered records for East Lothian, Midlothian and Wigtonshire are held in the National Archives.

 

Edinburgh City Archives, based in the City Chambers in the High Street, Edinburgh,has a considerable collection material relating to the Poor Law including lists of recipients of Poor Law Relief, of children boarded out under the poor law legislation, of ‘lunatics’ maintained within the City’s asylum and other such data.  The lists of ‘out pensioners’ of the Charity Workhouse are themselves useful documents which give the name, pension received, age, condition (married, single, widowed), the number of dependant children and their ages and the current address.  One such example from the 1840 lists will illustrate the usefulness of these reports:

Surname Forename Pension Age Condition Children Ages of children Address
Bain Janet 10/= 40 W 3 12, 6½, 3 Baillie Fyfe’s Close

 

Entries for Janet Bain were also found in 1843 and 1845:

 

Year Surname Forename Pension Age Condition Children Ages of children Place of Birth Address
1843 Bain Janet 10/= 44 2 10, 7 Edinburgh 213 Canongate
1845 Bain Janet 6/= 46 W 1 12 Edinburgh Well’s Close, Leith Wynd

 

As well as the interesting, minor inconsistencies, these records can obviously be compared with census returns to help build a detailed picture of an individual ancestor.

As well as the Edinburgh (or High Kirk) Parish, the City’s main Parish was St Cuthberts (or the West Kirk) a parish which encompassed many of the richest parts of Edinburgh.  The quality of its records tend therefore to be of the highest and its poor law records are no exception.  The St Cuthberts Parochial Board met regularly.  Extracts from two minutes of the Out Pension Committee will illustrate the value of these records.

The first relates to a family whose husband has gone to the countryside looking for work but has sent no remittance home to support the family.  The Committee met on 19th December 1850 to discuss the case of the family of William Telford of 6 Simon Square, Edinburgh.  ‘The pauper is 43 years of age, married, wife aged 30 yrs & has 3 children, viz: Wm. aet. 7-, Margaret aet 5. & Archibald aet 2 yrs.  Rent of house 45/- a year & was admitted to the roll in 1850.  The wife stated that her husband had been in the country for the last 5 weeks, with the view of procuring employment – but she has not received any remittance from him – that his health is recovering.  Has been visited by the District manager -, & are not connected with any church.  Continue present allowance in respect of the pauper being but partially able bodied & having 3 children under age.’   The report gives names, ages, address and a horde of small details which would otherwise seldom come to the attention of the family historian.

One further example from the St Cuthberts Out Pension Committee illustrates options in dealing with children: they could be boarded out or brought into the Poor House.  In 1852 the Committee considered the McInnes orphans, then boarded out to one Mrs Taylor, (“the nurse”) in 12 West Richmond Street, Edinburgh.  The inspector reported that he desired the nurse to be here today but she has failed to make her appearance: ‘Daniel, aet. 17, is with Millar & Richards Typesetters, 65 Nicolson Street, wages from 9/- to 9/6 per week and resides with Mrs Ferguson, 11 East Richmond Street: James aet. 10 also with Millar & Richards, wages from 3/- to 3/6d per week and resides with Mrs Taylor: Elizabeth aet. 8, attending Free St Paul’s School.  The Sub-Inspector reported that when he called upon the nurse to ascertain the conditions of the children, he was told by her that Daniel’s wages was from 2/6 to 3/- per week and that James was attending school.  In these circumstances, the Committee agreed to discontinue the outdoor allowance and admit the children to the Poor House: and the Inspector was directed accordingly.’

The details from such a report support reference to other data, including the 1851 census, which shows Daniel and his young brother and sister still with their mother who obviously died therefore between April 1851 and April 1852.  By the 1861 census, Daniel is residing with his older sister and her husband.

 

The above article was first published in Family Tree in March 2010

 

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