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Scottish Poor Law Records

One of the richest, most detail-filled records for any family historian is the Scottish Poor Law records. Although these records are not digitised and you will have to either go to the archives to see them in person, or ask someone to go for you, the information you can find in them will put a whole new slant on your family history. So what’s so great about them?


What Is Poor Law and Poor Relief?       

   

Poor Relief was in the past similar to Welfare or Benefits today. The 1845 Poor Law Act established a board in each parish across Scotland, and it was the Board’s job to hear applications from people who had fallen on hard times and needed money for basic necessities. The Board would either make an award for Outdoor Relief – a small sum of money to be paid weekly to the applicant – or Indoor Relief, which meant the applicant was admitted to the local Poor House. Scotland didn’t have Workhouses, but the Poor House was the equivalent, and equally severe in conditions. Going into the Poor House was the last resort for someone who really had no other option.


Accessing Poor Law Records - And What You Might Find



Although Poor Law records themselves are rarely digitised, some local archives have digital indexes. Renfrewshire, for example, has a .pdf online containing all of the names of people who applied in the Paisley area. Note the reference, then you can ask the archivist to pull the original documents. Once you get access to the original applications, or statements, the level of genealogical detail contained can be amazing.


In the above example, Margaret Anderson, 33 years old, residing at 122 Gallowgate, applied for Poor Relief in January 1855 for herself and her two children, Charlotte (3) and William (10 months). Both children were illegitimate, but their putative father is named as William Martin - this is information which is rarely given on a birth certificate. Margaret’s address history over the previous 14 years is given, and there is also information about Margaret’s own mother, who is named as Margaret Colquhoun. Margaret herself was illegitimate, and again, the form names her putative father as Samuel Anderson.


This level of detail is common on poor law records, as the clerks tried to establish whether there were family members who could support the family in need. It is not unusual to see details of parents given even when the applicant is in their 70s and their parents are deceased, or details of adult children who have married and have families of their own, along with ages, occupations and residence details for everyone named.


One of the most valuable nuggets of information you might find in Poor Law records is places of birth, especially for ancestors who came from Ireland. Typically, people born in Ireland had their place of birth recorded on census returns and other documents as Ireland only. However, the Poor Law records will often give a town or county. If you’re facing a brick wall searching for Mary Kelly or James Ryan, born somewhere in Ireland who came to Scotland in the 1850s, could the answer be hidden away in the Poor Law records? Get in touch and I can help you find out.

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