In the Parish Chest: Churchwarden & Poor Rate Records

ParishChestPoorLawIn the Parish Chest – Churchwarden and Poor Rate Records is the fourth and final post of the In the Parish Chest series. The other posts discussed Bastardy Bonds, Settlement Certificates, Examinations and Removal Orders and Apprenticeship records.

As early as 1572, Overseers of the Poor were appointed in each parish in England. Their job consisted of caring for the poor and keeping an account of the relief given. The Poor Law Act of 1601 gave Overseers the right to collect a poor rate from members of the parish who were considered wealthy and to disburse those funds to those needing help.

Churchwardens were expected to present any wrongdoings in the parish to the local magistrate or bishop. This would include such things as drunkenness, failure to provide for the poor or to attend church.  Those serving as Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor are mentioned by name in the records.

By 1834, when the Poor Law Amendment Act came into being, parishes were grouped into Unions. A Board of Guardians was elected and were responsible for the care of the poor across all the individual parishes.  It is through these Poor Laws that our ancestors received help. Often money would be given out but the relief also consisted of providing food, clothing and work.

Who will you find named in the Churchwarden/Poor Rate Records?

  • Your ancestor if he/she was poor, elderly, orphaned, unemployed, sick or a trouble maker
  • Your ancestor if he was elected a Churchwarden or Overseer of the Poor.
  • Your ancestor if he/she was considered wealthy and was a rate payer

Examples of Poor Law records

Churchwarden Accounts – Muggleswick, County Durham.1

On Easter Monday of 1801, the inhabitants of the parish of Muggleswick, Durham, met together to elect the new Churchwardens and Overseers of the Poor. This is a common entry in all Churchwarden accounts, followed by an accounting of the disbursement of funds to the poor. The outgoing and incoming Churchwardens were named as were the new Overseers and other principal inhabitants of the parish.

record-image_939N-F43C-SK(1)

Overseers of the Poor Account Book –  Helland, Cornwall.2

Thomas Pearce and William Brior were Overseers of the Poor in the parish of Helland, Cornwall in the year 1766 to 1767.  The page below shows an account of what was paid out that year. Included among the items like a pair of shoes or meat are the names of some members of the parish who received help.

record-image_S3HY-61PP-GNOverseers of the Poor – Grampound, Cornwall.3

If a person wanted to improve their property in a way which may affect the town or parish, there would have to be an agreement made between them and the Overseers of the parish. In the document below, Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Michael Croggon, Overseer of the Parish of Grampound, Cornwall, have come to an agreement regarding Mr. Nicholls request to build a drain that would go from his dwelling across town property to another garden. The request is approved subject to Mr. Nicholls paying sixpence annually to the Overseers and keeping the drain free of “any annoyance whatsoever on the property of the Town, in default of which refusal or neglect of payment of the annual sum…the drain shall and will be subject to be torn up or otherwise destroyed.” If Mr. Nicholls was your ancestor you have just been given a glimpse into his life!

record-image_S3HY-61PL-NT

Relief Committee minute books 1832-1851, Norwich, Norfolk Poor Law Union.

On 6 October 1801, John Mordy of Saint Peter of Mancroft paid twelve pounds to the Poor Law Union, being his responsibility for the “female bastard child” of Susanna Baxter. He had previously been charged with a Bastardy Bond and this is the record of him settling that responsibility.4 More information on Bastardy Bonds can be found here.

JohnMordy

On the same day, the Mayor’s request for an arrest warrant for John Malster was granted. John had left his wife and family without support and they were now relying on the parish.5

JohnMalster

Orders for placing young boys in apprenticeships were common in these Poor Law records. Below, James Berry, 14-years old, was being apprenticed to Richard Cropley, a cordwainer, until he reached the age of 21. More on apprenticeship records can be found here.6

cordwainer

Details of daily life are reflected in the Poor Law records. Most of these records are not indexed so it helps to have an idea of which parish your ancestor lived in. However, even if you don’t know exactly where they may have lived, reading through the Poor Law records of any parish will give you valuable insight into what life was like in the parishes of England during this time period.


  1. Durham, Muggleswick, Parish chest records, Churchwardens Accounts, 1801-1858, Easter Monday 1801; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:939N-F43C-SK?i=5&cat=978581 : accessed 11 September 2018), citing Family History film 004024471, image 6 of 1114. 
  2. Cornwall, Helland, Poor law records, 1753-1851, Easter 1766; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-61PP-GN?cat=502005 : accessed 11 September 2018), citing Family History film 004476779, image 1295 of 1679. 
  3. Cornwall, Grampound, Poor law records, 1671-1894, agreement between Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Croggon; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HY-61PL-NT?cat=502005 : accessed 11 September 2018), citing Family History film 004476779, image 993 of 1679. 
  4. Norfolk, Norwich, Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900, Guardians’ minute books, 6 October 1801, John Mordy; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-D1DH-8S7?i=2228&cc=1824706&cat=495724 : accessed 12 September 2018), image 2229 of 3866; citing Norwich Record Office. 
  5. Norfolk, Norwich, Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900, Guardians’ minute books, 6 October 1801, warrant for John Malster; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-D1DH-8S7?i=2228&cc=1824706&cat=495724 : accessed 12 September 2018), image 2229 of 3866; citing Norwich Record Office. 
  6. Norfolk, Norwich, Poor Law Union Records, 1796-1900, Guardians’ minute books, 6 October 1801, apprenticeship of James Berry ; digital image, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/3:1:S3HT-D1DH-8G4?i=2229&cc=1824706&cat=495724 : accessed 12 September 2018), image 2230 of 3866; citing Norwich Record Office. 

12 thoughts on “In the Parish Chest: Churchwarden & Poor Rate Records

  1. A great article – thank you. I am in Scotland, and the Kirk Session records give us similar information which often can be summarized as giving “censure to the sinful and charity to the poor”. My local archive centre in the Scottish Borders has a brilliant collection of very detailed, personal poor law records which are a must if you find your ancestor described as a “pauper” in a census return.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have Scottish ancestors who have been hiding from me for quite a while now! I definitely need to check out the Kirk Session records, perhaps I’ll be lucky and find them there! Thanks for stopping by, Susan.

      Like

  2. Thanks for explaining such a wonderful resource! Before they came to the USA, my English ancestors were pretty poor, and one of my ancestors was born out of wedlock. I now have new resources where I can search for them! Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi EvaAnne, so glad I could help in finding some new resources for you to look through. With having an ancestor born out of wedlock, you may get really lucky and find them in Bastardy Bond records. I have an earlier post on those records. Good luck and thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Liz, there are a good number of Overseers of the Poor records for the US on FamilySearch (some available online, some viewable at a family history center. If you search the Catalog with the keywords ‘overseers of the poor united states’, you’ll get a list which includes records in Virginia, West Virginia, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s