Expert Tip: Glasgow's Poor Law Collection

One of the great frustrations of Scottish and English censuses is seeing, under place of birth, “Ireland”. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information to be found in the Poor Law records of the west of Scotland, where so many Irish ended up in the 19th century. These are wonderfully maintained in Glasgow Archives at the Mitchell Library, and better still, indexed by surnames on computer up to 1900.

The records started in 1845, when poor relief became the responsibility of new Parochial Boards, and run up to the introduction of social security in 1948. However, many of the applicants will have been born before civil registration, in some cases in the late 1700s.

Glasgow Poor Law

Poor Law mustn’t be thought of as merely a register of the destitute. People applied for Poor Relief if, for example, a minor injury such as a sprained wrist prevented them working for a week or two. When living on an economic knife-edge one week’s pay could make the difference between paying or not paying the rent, eating or not eating. But there are also cases of illness, desertion, widowhood, foundling children and so on.

The amount of detail provided by the Inspectors was remarkable. They recorded:

  • name (including a woman’s maiden name)
  • age of applicant and all dependents, sometimes with actual birth date, including children’s names, ages and place of birth
  • birthplace of applicant, including county of birth (compulsory from 1865) and often the parish – essential to take Irish research further
  • religion (from 1865) – see below
  • marital history
  • names of applicant’s parents and parents-in-law, confirming where born and if still alive
  • previous addresses of applicant, which may tie in with census records
  • previous applications and outcome
  • whether the applicant has relatives alive – which may reveal a brother in America, for instance
  • in many cases, additional details such as living conditions (sometimes with a sketch plan of the house, to show the level of overcrowding), comments on the applicant’s character (usually not very flattering), letters (often submitted as evidence of abandonment), newspaper clippings (sometimes reports of arrest) and even photographs.

The reason for asking religion was not one of discrimination. Technically, the responsibility for Relief fell on the Parish of Settlement. The definition of this was somewhat fluid. If a woman came and married in Glasgow, she was considered “settled” and therefore Glasgow’s responsibility; if, however, a man had arrived just a few weeks before looking for work, he might not be considered “settled” so the originating parish would be asked either to contribute or to take him back. Therefore, enquiries would be made back home, but to the appropriate ecclesiastical parish – Church of Ireland, Catholic, Presbyterian etc. This often ties the applicant to a particular townland or barony.

The applicant may be offered “indoor relief”, ie going to a poor house (Scotland did not have workhouses) in which case there may be further records in poor house registers, annual rolls and other records also held.

At The Mitchell Library, it is possible to look up a surname – and most records will contain two, as maiden names are recorded – which will give date of application and a reference number. Fill in a slip, and the actual registers will be brought out – huge bound volumes which are a delight to browse through.

Because Glasgow was, for a time, part of the larger Strathclyde Region, the archives accumulated records from a wider area. Not all of these date back to 1845 but many do. The areas covered for poor law include:

  • Glasgow, 1851–1948
  • Barony Parish (essentially the centre of Glasgow), 1861–1898 (after which it was united with Glasgow)
  • Govan, 1876–1930
  • the county councils (now defunct) of Bute, Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire.

The Poor Law authorities were also responsible for foundlings, orphans and children separated from their parents. Some records have information on children who were boarded out, adopted, fostered and so on – with the caveat that records concerning adults are usually closed for 75 years and those of children closed for 100 years. This doesn’t quite take us back to the beginning of Scottish legal adoption in 1929, but will soon.

Opening hours are Monday to Thursday 9:30am–4:45pm; Friday 9:30am–4:00pm and at other times by arrangement. It is best to arrive early, as the Registers take time to be produced.

In addition, The Mitchell has made a particular virtue of its Ireland-related Family History collections, and has many other useful record sources. There is also a (slightly out of date) guide to use.

Just for information – there are no equivalent Poor Law records for Edinburgh – these were all destroyed on purpose by the authorities in Edinburgh in the 1970s specifically to prevent researchers delving into what was considered an embarrassing aspect of the city’s past!

The Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow G3 7DN
Telephone: +44 (0)141 287 2910
Fax: +44( 0)141 226 8452

Prof Bruce Durie FIGRS
October 2012

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