Gruel, Grime, & Guardians: Poor Law and the Workhouse

Up to 1844 in Leeds the Poor Law was carried out by the Parish and Chapelry Vestries. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 resulted in the Board of Guardians being set up. In 1861 four additional unions were created within the borough. The pre 1844 records are arranged under townships, many of which were amalgamated to form Unions.  The bulk of these records came from the Leeds Public Assistance Office in 1949.

In the collection there is a variety of records such as Admission and Discharge registers, Minute books, Letters, Bastardy Orders and much more. I hope to catalogue the whole collection to make it more accessible to the public. I will also do a talk at Leeds Central Library and the Archives. This will allow researchers to gain an understanding of the records we do hold and how to use the records for their research.

An aim of mine is to write a blog on each section which will lead up to my talk in September. I have just finished cataloguing section 5 which is Relief Order Books.  Relief Order Books show how much financial or other assistance were given to those in need. Here are some interesting records I have found when cataloguing.

An attention grabbing document would be the Warrant Book. It shows warrants issued by the relieving officer due to paupers deserting their families. The remarks on appearances are outstanding, for instance it illustrates that Jacob Renalt (Reynolds) had a ‘bullet wound between his finger and his thumb’.

Register of Warrants, 1900-1954, PL/5/11

Register of Warrants, 1900-1954, PL/5/11

The Admission and Discharge register which includes the individuals’ date of birth, the parish they belonged to, cause of relief and individuals it mentions observations on conditions at the time of admission. For instance James Kirby who was born in 1784 and admitted in 1846 was destitute. His condition was seen as ‘dirty, filthy and nearly naked’.

Admission and Admission and Discharge register, 1843-1843 PL/5/1a

Admission and Admission and Discharge register, 1843-1843 PL/5/1a

Furthermore, the relief section can also allow one to understand how paupers  lived especially by examining the workhouse dietary sheet. The curiosity to find out how these paupers lived prompted my colleague Gary Brannan to try the diet. He found it difficult to eat the large amount of ‘dry bread with only a little bit of liquid’. Furthermore the ‘cocoa was very heavy’ but on a whole the breakfast was ‘flavourless mush with very little to go on’. Therefore you can imagine how they felt!

Workhouse Diet Sheet, 1877, PL/5/16/11

Workhouse Diet Sheet, 1877, PL/5/16/11

There are many interesting facts and figures to observe for many different research purposes but it is still fascinating for anyone to see how people were classed, how they were observed and how they lived in the workhouse.

If anyone has any stories they would like to share regarding their ancestors in the workhouse, questions or would simply like to get involved in the project then please do contact us.

By Ameena Mughal

Link to Gary Brannan’s blog

Sources used:

Register of Warrants, 1900-1948, PL/5/11.

Admission and Discharge register, 1843-1847, PL/5/1a.

Workhouse Diet Sheet, 1877, PL/5/16/11.


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