The Workhouse Registers contain details of people residing in institutions set up for poverty relief across Britain and Ireland. Find My Past has the biggest collection of Workhouse records available online.
This article looks at what you’ll find in these collections on Find My Past. We also give you tips on searching for what you need.
What Were The Workhouses?
The Workhouses were set up by the British Government as a form of poverty relief. The idea was that residents would work in return for food and a meager income.
Workhouses were deliberately austere and fearful places. The ruling establishment wanted to ensure that they were a last resort for impoverished people.
They date in Britain from the 1620s. The first Workhouse was built in Ireland in 1840.
Poor Law Unions
The Poor Law Act of 1834 divided the two islands into a set of Poor Law Unions. Each Union had a Board Of Governers to administer poverty relief and run a Workhouse.
You’ll see that the record collections are organized by Poor Law Union. So, you should get familiar with the Unions that covered the areas in which your ancestors lived.
However, some of the bigger Unions took in people from wider areas. The cities in particular could have residents from across the country.
Different record collections
There are several different record collections that cover Workhouses. Some are registers of the residents, and this is mostly where you’ll be looking for relatives.
However, there are also records pertaining to the Boards of Governers such as minutes of their meetings. Your relatives may also appear in these volumes.
Who Went Into The Workhouses?
The people in the Workhouses simply couldn’t support themselves outside them.
- the elderly who couldn’t work
- people who were physically disabled or weakened after illness
- people with mental disabilities or a form of mental illness
- unmarried mothers and their children
Fathers who were deemed to be able-bodied couldn’t enter the Workhouse on their own. This is one way of how entire families ended up in an institution.
In Ireland, new laws introduced during the Potato Famine forced people who had a leasholding over a quarter acre to give it up if they needed Workouse relief.
What Do The Records Tell You?
The recorded details can different across the Workhouses. In general, you’ll see these searchable details on the record transcripts:
- Birth year
- Previous residence
- Poor Law Union (place of the Workhouse)
- Admission and discharge date
- Reason for admission
- Details of next of kin (could be family or friends)
You won’t see all the details on every record. And be sure that you check the original record or image because it will have more details than on the transcript.
Be sure to check the original image for more details.
The link in the transcript jumps you to an image of the page in the register for this record.
These are the extra details in the image that aren’t on every transcript:
- Marital status
- Whether a child is orphaned or deserted
- A description of a disability
- Name of a spouse if married
- Number of children not in the Workhouse
The details of a spouse can help you determine whether you’ve got the correct relative.
How To Browse The Workhouse Records On Find My Past
If you’ve read some our our other tutorials on Find My Past, you’ll know that I usually like to browse to the subcategory of records on the Search page.
You’ll find a Workhouse subcategory, but I don’t find that it has all the relevant record collections. So, I prefer to see what collections are available this way:
- Expand the top Search menu and choose “All record sets”
- Enter “workhouse” into the input box
- Choose a country to work within
- Review the record sets that ar available
This method lets you see the different record sets across the Poor Law Unions in your country of interest.
You’ll see more than one subcategory. Alongside “Workhouses and Poor Law”, there will also be a “Government” subcategory which has related records.
Searching specific collections
When you click into any record set, you can run a search on the specific collection.
This is a good place to start. But I mentioned in the opening sections that some of the larger Workhouses took in people from much wider areas.
This is particulary true of cities during times of widspread hardship. Rural people traditionally flocked to urban areas looking for work, but often fell on even harder times.
The “Browse Record set” link opens a pop-up window that lists all the record sets under this chosen category within Ireland.
Searching across all relevant Workhouse collections
So that I don’t miss out on a relevant collection, I tend to run general searches on the names of the people I’m researching.
I’ll then use the left pane to narrow down the results on the “Institutions & Origanizations” category. This has two relevant subcategories but I’ll leave it at the higher level. I’ll then add year, location, or keyword filters.
Caution: you’ll also see a “Workhouses and Poor Law” subcategory under the broad “Education & Work” category. At the time of writing, this filter results in much fewer records.
More search tips
Some records only record initals for a first name or a variant that you’re not used to. So, it’s worth omitting the first name from your initial search filters.
Are Workhouse Records Available Elsewhere?
Ancestry.com is another subscription website. The company has a much smaller number of Workhouse collections. However, their London collection of 1765-1930 is extensive.
You can check out our article on workhouse records on Ancestry.
The original records are held in various archives and may be available on microfilm. The National Archive of Ireland has the Irish Workhouse records. British records aren’t housed in a single location.