The Workhouse Registers contain detail of people residing in institutions set up for poverty relief across Britain and Ireland.
This article covers these collections on Ancestry.com. We also give you tips on searching for what you need, and where else to look for records.
What Were The Workhouses?
The Workhouses were set up by the British Government for the relief of poverty. They provided accommodation and food to people who could not support themselves.
The able-bodied had to work for their keek. The work was often in the form of hard labor, such as quarrying or stone-cutting.
They were deliberately austere and feared residences. The British Government wanted them to be so undesirable that they’d be a last resort for the most impoverished people.
They date in Britain from the 1620s, while Ireland’s first workhouse was built in 1840.
Poor Law Unions
The Poor Law Act of 1834 divided the two islands into a set of Poor Law Unions, with each Union defining a specific territory. A Poor Law Union had a Board Of Governers to manage relief efforts and run the Workhouse for its area.
Most of the record collections are organized by a specific Poor Law Union. So, you should familiarize yourself with the Unions that covered the areas of your ancestors
But be mindful that the larger Unions and Unions in cities had residents from all over the country.
Different record collections
There are several different record collections that cover Workhouses. There are the registers of admissions, where you will mostly be reviewing for relatives.
However, there are also records of the governance of the Union. These include the minutes of the board meetings. These minutes also discuss and name residents, so you may find some interesting facts pop up within.
Who Went Into The Workhouses?
People who willingly went into a Workhouse were in such dire straits that they couldn’t feed themselves and their families outside it. The types of people included:
- people who were physically disabled or weakened after illness
- people with mental disabilities or a form of mental illness
- the elderly who couldn’t work
- unmarried mothers and their children
Able-bodied men couldn’t enter the Workhouse on their own if they had a family. The entire family had to go in with them. And then the family would be split up into different parts of the residence.
What Are In The Workhouse Records?
The recorded details may differ across the Workhouses. In general, you’ll see these searchable details on the record transcripts:
- first and last name (sometimes an initial for the first name)
- year of birth
- former place of residence
- Poor Law Union (place of the Workhouse)
- date of admission (and sometimes discharge)
- reason why the person entered the Workhouse
- Details of family or friends (next of kin)
You may not see all these details on every record.
Always check the associated image of the record. It will have more details than are in the record transcript.
The original image is of the page in the register that contains the record. Sometimes the details are across multiple pages, so be sure to scroll right and left.
Here are some of the extra details that you may see:
- Marital status
- Whether a child is orphaned or deserted
- A description of a disability
- Name of a spouse
- Number of children outside the Workhouse
The details of a spouse are very helpful to figure out whether you’ve got the correct relative.
How To Browse The Workhouse Records On Ancestry
Workhouse information is spread across different types of collections. Specifically, you’ll want to look at the admission records and those pertaining to the management.
Because Ancestry has put these types of collections into different categories, it can be easy to miss some interesting information.
This is how I like to review what collections are available.
Step 1: Expand the Search drop-down menu and pull up the Card Catalog search page.
Step 2: Enter “workhouse” into the Keyword input box.
Don’t bother with the Title search box because this has to be an exact match. Instead, use the Keyword input box.
You’ll see a list of collections. The London collection is by far the biggest. At this point, you’ll probably want to drill down to filter by location.
Once you’ve identified interesting collections, it’s time to check what else is available.
Step 3: Enter “poor law” into the Keyword input box
You’re starting a new search here by clearing out “workhouse” from the box, and replacing it with “poor law”.
You’ll see plenty of collections that you saw with the first search. But I find other collections that I would have missed, especially for Ireland.
Are Workhouse Records Available Elsewhere?
The original records are held in various archives and may be available on microfilm if you visit the archive building.
The National Archive of Ireland has the Irish Workhouse records. British records aren’t housed in a single location.
Depending on your location of interest, Ancestry.com may have all the records you need. This is particularly if you are only interested in London.
However, the most comprehensive collection of online Workhouse records is on a rival subscription site. Check out our article on Workhouse records on Find My Past.
You can run free searches on Find My Past to see what’s available. This should let you decide whether it’s worth taking out a subscription to the British website.