This week we are celebrating the Poor Law collection which was first deposited at the Leeds Archive in the 1940s. While Britain unknowingly headed toward the creation of a new welfare system the archives received the records of the Guardians of the Poor – the first centrally organised social care. While a certain level of Church administered aid for the poor and destitute had always existed, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 made this a standardised nationwide system. Care of the lowest rungs of the social ladder ceased to be seen as a Christian duty and became instead a civil necessity run by the newly formed Poor Law Unions. It was this change that led to the creation of Workhouses, which in turn led to the creation of a fantastic collection of records left to the modern researcher.
Nineteenth century Leeds was an industrial town with an expanding population, swollen by the workers of factories and mills and populated by more illiterate workers than wealthy ladies and gentlemen. So few of the records we hold however reflect the mass of the poor. Archival documents are, by their very nature, representative of a relatively small section of society, those who could write, afford paper and had something to say worthy of being preserved, long before it became of historic interest. The Poor Law collection goes some way toward redressing this balance as it records the lives of the nineteenth century’s newest social class, the ‘pauper’. Prior to this ‘pauper’ had been used as a general and negative description of the poor. With the social changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the emergence of the Poor Law Unions the term took on new meaning. It came to refer to one reliant on the state authorities for a living and one totally at the mercy of the institutions that made Victorian Britain everyone’s favourite setting for a good ghost story.
While the majority of the Poor Law collection depicts a Victorian Leeds smothered with factory soot and poverty it actually provides a huge wealth of information about the lives of the dispossessed and desperate from about 1713 to 1948. This massive date range combined with the huge amount of people named in the records makes it one of our most frequently used collections. If you are looking for someone in Leeds who was in a workhouse, had an illegitimate baby, was in a children’s home, was poor, ill or received relief this is the collection for you. As with any archive this collection comes with a couple of warnings. Firstly, while the collection is huge it is by no means a complete run of all the records created. Sadly not everything survives through the swirling mists of time. Secondly, the vast majority of these records contain sensitive information and any less than 100 years old may be restricted. If in doubt just ask us!
To view a list of the records we hold and a breakdown of the Leeds Unions browse our online catalogue using the collection reference number PL. Contact the Leeds team with any questions or to make an appointment and for more background information visit the excellent Workhouses website.
Keep reading… 1950s: Diocesan Records
Missed a page?…. 1930s: Temple Newsam