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Parish records of the poor

  Historical introduction

Before the 1830s, every parish was responsible for looking after its own poor.

From 1601 onwards, parishes appointed officers (called overseers of the poor) to give out poor relief to those who needed financial support.

The money came from a rate, which the overseers collected from the better-off people in the parish


Some parishes established their own workhouses, for which records occasionally survive amongst parish records. From the 18th century onwards, parishes in a few areas joined into unions to provide workhouse accommodation for their poor.

Under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, all parishes were organized into poor law unions, which administered poor relief. From the 1830s onwards, records of the poor are usually found amongst records of the relevant poor law union. These documents may include: out relief lists (payments made to people living outside the workhouse); workhouse admission, discharge, birth, death, and religious creed registers; and minutes of the guardians who ran the poor law union. However, each parish still had an overseer or relieving officer who would collect the poor rate and could give emergency relief.

We have more information about Poor Law Unions.

We also have maps showing pre- and post-1834 unions.

For a list of Norfolk poor law unions see our guide to holdings.

Records of Norfolk poor law unions are described in our catalogue under references starting C/GP.

s sed ea.

  Locating the records

Parish records of the poor usually survive amongst the parish church records.

To see descriptions of the records for a particular parish church select a parish in our online catalogue.

Within the parish collection, use the tree view to navigate to the series of records for the Overseers of the Poor. For Norwich, Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn parishes, overseers’ records are mostly amongst the city/borough records. 

Survival rates of parish poor law records vary greatly from parish to parish. Most of the documents in the list below survive from the 1500s onwards for a few parishes. Usually, it is much more common to find them for the 1700s and 1800s. 


  Types of records

  Overseers' financial accounts

These may survive from the 1500s onwards. Some are very detailed, listing individual payments to named paupers. Accounts after about 1834, however, do not usually name those receiving relief.

Accounts also record the overseers’ income from the poor rates they collected, giving ratepayers’ names and the amount each person paid. Note that if a property was rented out, usually the occupier of the property (rather than the owner) paid the poor rates.

Overseers’ accounts may also include poor rate assessments (see next section).

  Poor rate assessments

Poor rate assessments are lists of householders, stating the amount of poor rate each was liable to pay.

They sometimes (but not always) include brief descriptions and valuations of the property on which the rate was assessed. After 1834, they often give names of owners as well as occupiers.

From this date, rate assessments are commonly entered in separate books. Before then, rate assessments are often found in the main overseers’ account books.

Rate books may be arranged alphabetically by owner or street: the latter is more common from the late nineteenth century.

  Settlement papers

Settlement papers provide biographical details about working people, usually giving names of each member of the family. Since they record the movement of individuals and families from parish to parish, they are useful in tracking down ‘lost’ ancestors. Most of them date from the 1690s-1830s.

The 1662 Settlement Act established the concept that each person had a parish of 'settlement'. This was the parish responsible for providing him or her with poor relief. People not living in their parish of settlement could be sent back there.

As a starting point, a person's parish of settlement was usually their parish of birth, but married women took their husbands' settlements and children their fathers' (except for illegitimate children, who took their settlement from the parish where they were born).

A person could also gain a new settlement during his or her life. The main ways to do this were: completing a formal apprenticeship; working in a parish for at least one year’s continuous service; renting a house worth at least £10 per year or paying taxes on a house worth at least £10 per year; and serving as a parish officer.

Settlement papers include:

  • Settlement certificates. These enabled people to move around by guaranteeing that their own parish would accept them back if they needed poor relief. They could be issued for individuals or whole families. They list the names of each member of the family (often giving children's ages), the parish of settlement (the certifying parish) and the parish they were moving to (the parish of residence).
  • Settlement examinations. In cases where a person’s parish of settlement was uncertain, two justices of the peace would question him or her, recording the resulting statement in a settlement examination. These documents often include detailed information about the subjects' lives, such as age, former parishes of residence, apprenticeships served and previous jobs.
  • Removal orders. In these documents, two justices of the peace order an individual or family to be sent back to their parish of settlement. Removal orders usually give the names of each member of the family, children's ages, the parish from which they are being removed, and the parish to which they are being sent.

Most settlement papers are name indexed in the online catalogue; see the poor law settlement records set search.

  Apprenticeship records

Parish overseers often arranged for poor children to be apprenticed to learn a trade. Some children would learn ‘housewifery’ or ‘husbandry’, which in effect meant that they were working as unpaid servants.

Apprenticeship indentures may survive from the 1500s onwards. They usually give the names of the child and his or her father, as well as the name of the master, his or her trade and parish.

Most apprenticeship indentures are not yet name indexed in the online catalogue, but you can perform an apprenticeship set search. You can also check the online catalogue to see if apprenticeship indentures survive amongst the overseers’ records of the relevant parish.

Apprenticeship books and rolls survive in the Norwich City, and the Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn Borough records, 16th-19th centuries. These mostly relate to better-off children, whose families could pay the apprenticeship fee, although there are also records for poor apprentices in these collections. There are printed indexes to many of the indentures in the Norwich City and the Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn Borough records, which are available on the searchroom shelves.

Between 1710 and 1811, apprenticeship indentures were subject to tax and were enrolled in apprenticeship books, held at The National Archives. They are indexed on the Ancestry and Find my Past subscription websites, and Norfolk Heritage Centre in Norwich has microfilm copies. Pauper apprenticeships were exempt from tax, however, and do not appear in these records.

  'Bastardy' records

A child whose parents were unmarried were deemed by law to be illegitimate. So called ‘bastardy papers’ were created when parish officers sought to ensure that a father paid maintenance to support his illegitimate child. They usually name the mother and alleged father, and sometimes (but not always) the child. They may survive from the 1500s-1840s.

In a bastardy examination, the mother was questioned about the identity of the father of her (sometimes unborn) child. The father could agree to pay for the child’s maintenance in a bastardy bond. If he denied paternity, refused to sign the bond, or missed maintenance payments, the overseers might take out a warrant to bring him before the justices of the peace. The justices could issue a bastardy order to require him to pay maintenance.

For more information, see our guide on Illegitimacy.

Many bastardy papers are not name indexed in the online catalogue, but you can use the parish records set search to see if papers survive amongst the overseers’ records of the relevant parish.

  Other records

During the 19th century, the overseers of the poor usually acted as census enumerators (recorders) and were responsible for compiling electoral registers. A few drafts of pre-1841 censuses (including names) survive amongst parish records. The pre-1841 Norfolk censuses which include details about named individuals have been transcribed and are available online on the Norfolk Genuki website.

Some parishes established their own workhouses. Where records have survived, they are usually amongst records of the overseers of the poor in parish collections. Check the parish records set search to see if documents survive.

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