From the Liverpool Echo newspaper: Geneology: poor ancestors means better documents
DISCOVERING that your ancestor was a poor peasant farm worker puts many people off pursuing their roots.
But the poorer a person was, the more likely it is that they left behind some documentary evidence of their lives.
It is not usually a problem tracing your ancestors back to 1837 via the civil registration registers and census returns, but before then the main source is the parish registers, which in many parishes date back to 1538.
These are fine until a family name suddenly disappears. This can happen even where a marriage entry records one or both of the parties as ‘of this parish’ but you can not find any birth records.
There are various ways round this problem. Many people, even those who were poor, made wills, and, if you cannot find one, uncles, aunts or siblings may have made wills which mention your elusive ancestor and where he/she lived.
The other main resources are the parish records and Quarter Sessions (court) records. These can be very detailed and contain a wealth of material to help you trace your missing ancestor.
Prior to 1834 the parish was the basis of local government, with each parish electing its own officers to administer local affairs. They were basically untrained officials but the records they left are a goldmine for the family researcher. Some date back to Elizabethan times – there are the account books of village constables, poor law settlement books, details of apprenticeships, churchwarden’s accounts, details of local almshouse tenants, etc.
Basically, each parish was responsible for looking after the elderly, the sick, widows and orphaned children, the unemployed, destitute wanderers and illegitimate children.
In many cases these leave a paper trail which you can access, usually via the county records offices. However, the best starting point is the A2A website hosted by The National Archives at www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/a2a/
Here, a simple search on a name will often lead you to the catalogue entry about your missing ancestor.
It happened to me recently when I could not trace the birth of my x3 great grandmother Judith Harrison from Maghull.
She was born about 1797 but I had been unable to find her in the parish records. It turned out she was illegitimate – and many illegitimate births were simply not made public by the parties.
However, the subsequent hunt for the father and the arrangements made by the parish for her upkeep are available at the county record office in Preston in the Quarter Sessions records – see lancashire. gov.uk/education/record_office/
The paperwork gave the father’s name, profession and the amount of cash he had to pay the parish for the upkeep of his child. Such information really brings your family history to life.
Many will also have an ancestor who spent some of their lives in a workhouse.
As the population grew, the system of parish relief became an increasing burden for the parish elders and a new system of ‘indoor relief’ based on a community workhouse began to evolve in the 18th century.
Under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, sweeping new changes were implemented.
Parishes were grouped into ‘unions’ managed by locally elected Boards of Guardians. Under the system, hundreds of new union workhouse buildings were erected across the country.
Relief would only be granted to those desperate enough to face enduring the conditions inside the workhouse.
Life inside the workhouse was intended to be as off-putting as possible. While inmates were provided with a bed, there was little in the way of home comforts.
Men, women, children, the infirm, and the able bodied were housed separately and given basic food.
The fear of seeking shelter in the workhouse was a very real one for many hard-working families who just could not make ends meet in the overcrowded slum conditions in our 19th century towns and cities.
It is from this time on that the best records survive for people who lived in the workhouse, some of which are accessible at local records offices or through family history societies.
In a publication written at the time of the 1834 reforms, Picture Of Liverpool: Strangers Guide, we read the following account of life in a Liverpool workhouse:
‘The first workhouse erected in this town was situated in College Lane at the corner adjoining Hanover Street; but becoming too small for the number of poor applicants, the present one which stands on Brownlow Hill was erected in 1771 at the expense of £8,000 – since which time it had been enlarged.
“This extensive establishment is conducted on excellent and economical principles, each of the inmates having all of the necessaries of life that can be reasonably required, there being a sufficient supply of plain but wholesome food and a proper quantity of warm clothing. Besides these, the old people have some additional comforts.
“All that are not sick are employed in some trade or useful manufacture, as joiners , blacksmiths, wheelwrights, shoemakers, semptresses, knitters, spinners, etc.
“The boys are instructed in some trade, and the girls who are above nine years of age are taught to make straw bonnets, to knit stockings, to sew, or to weave calicos etc.”
There is a huge amount of information and illustrations on Liverpool’s workhouses at www.workhouses.org.uk