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Poor Law Union Records

Poor Law Unions 1834 - 1930 

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the poor law system administered by the parishes was under severe strain. The cost of providing for the poor of the parish was increasing. A series of amendments and reports by the Royal Commission, including a questionnaire to parishes, resulted in the legislation of 1834 known as the Poor Law Amendment Act. A book by Michael E Rose entitled The English Poor Law 1780 - 1930 (Classification 50, on searchroom shelf) gives a detailed account of the development of the legislation. Another useful publication is The Workhouse System 1834 - 1929 by M A Crowther, (Classification 50). In her introduction Crowther describes the ethos behind the New Poor Law as, "...based on the hard belief that the deserving and undeserving poor could be distinguished from each other by a simple test: anyone who accepted relief in the repellent workhouse must be lacking in the moral determination to survive outside it".

Rather than acting against each other, expelling people who had become or were likely to become reliant on the parish, through idleness, sickness or other misfortune, parishes in each County were grouped into 'Unions', with a workhouse for each. Bedfordshire was divided into six Poor Law Unions: Ampthill, Bedford, Biggleswade, Leighton Buzzard, Luton and Woburn. Some Bedfordshire parishes came under the St Neots Union; Eaton Socon, Little Barford, Little Staughton, Pertenhall, Tilbrook, Dean and Shelton. This office holds a few estate records for this union, but the bulk of the records, including the minutes, are held at the Huntingdonshire Branch of the Cambridgeshire Record Office.

A good summary of Poor Law Union sources held at Bedfordshire & Luton Archives and Records Service can be found in the Journal of the Bedfordshire Family History Society Vol.13 Book 8 pp 4-8. There are also records relating to the Poor Law Unions in the parish records (black 'P' catalogues) and in private collections which complement the main body of the records. References to these are in the card index under POVERTY:POOR LAW: - POOR LAW UNION, and then arranged alphabetically by union. Records relating to individual workhouses have their own section in the index: POVERTY:POOR LAW: -POOR LAW UNION: UNION WORKHOUSES.

The records of the Bedfordshire Poor Law Unions are listed in the brown 'PU' catalogues on the searchroom shelves. The Ampthill - Bedford catalogue includes a map showing the parishes covered by each poor law union, with a note that the Woburn Union was dissolved in 1899, with parishes being transferred to the Leighton Buzzard and Ampthill Unions. As the administration of the Poor Law became more complex, officials were often required to combine several duties, aside from workhouse administration, including public vaccinations, rate collection, and monitoring school attendance. The records include a wide variety of material useful to family, local and social historians alike, and are divided into the following sections:

The general section PU.Pu includes all Printed Material . These include printed reports of the Poor Law Commission, the Poor Law Board, Local Government Board, and the Registrar General. There are also miscellaneous reports and statistics.

The PU catalogues for Ampthill, Bedford, Biggleswade, Leighton Buzzard, and Luton all contain the following sections:

Agreements This section includes all agreements entered into by the Guardians of the poor law union, such as contracts of the District Medical Officer, agreement for care of the mentally defective, mortgages, bonds, contracts to build or improve property,-loans, and valuations of railway property.

Correspondence This section is divided into out letters and in letters, the content of which varies. The Ampthill in-letters include correspondence regarding apprentices, religious services for tramps, emigration, sale of workhouse oakum, bills and tenders, amongst other things. Many of the Bedford letter books are indexed for main items. For Biggleswade only the out-letter books survive, but they date from 1842 to 1930. Luton out- letters are indexed for addresses, but only date from 1835 - 1886.

Estate Deeds
These include deeds of the workhouse and its grounds and other property owned by the Union including wills of benefactors, mortgages, conveyances and abstracts of title. The Bedford union includes deeds of Kempston Children's Home and Prebend Street Relief Office. Luton Union records include agreements concerning Hadrian County Primary School as late as 1998.

Financial Records
These include Treasurers' accounts, statutory financial statements and statements to the Guardians, records of receipt and expenditure for clothing and provisions, workhouse account books, service registers and details of superannuation of those employed by the Union, records of loans granted to paupers. Again, the type and survival rate of material is diverse and differs between the Unions.

Health Records
These records survive only for Ampthill, Bedford, Leighton Buzzard, and Luton. They include records of vaccinations, Medical Officers report books and relief books. The Bedford collection is more varied, including a Medical Officer's Report Book for 1873 - 1892 (Ref: PUBH 4/1)with greater detail about the condition of the workhouse itself, and the health of individual inmates, with recommendations for transfer to `seabathing infirmaries' and other hospitals. There are also Inspector's report books relating to the 1897 Infant Life Protection Act and the 1908 Children's Act (Ref: PUBH 6/1-3). For the Town of Bedford there is the Inspector of Nuisances Report Book for 1853-54, checking on conditions in slaughter houses and butchers yards in the town when cholera was prevalent (Ref: PUBII 8). Later records also include maternity registers from 1925 - 1947 (Ref: PUBH 10/1-4).

Ledgers
Ledgers survive for all the Bedfordshire Poor Law Unions and include accounts for the cost of provision for general, parochial and non-settled poor. From the 1840s onwards much of the information is duplicated in the Minutes and Financial Records, and where this occurs some of the ledger series have been destroyed.

Minutes and Committee Minutes
These include the minute books of the Board of Guardians, and those of various committees, such as the Finance Committee, Visiting Committee, School Attendance Committee, Rating and Valuation Assessment Committee, Boarding Out Committee, and the Relief Committee.

Relief Books
These include lists of outdoor and indoor recipients of relief, which are of interest to the genealogist. The Leighton Buzzard Relief Report books include reports on the effects of unemployment in the 1920s.

Various Papers
This section encompasses records which do not fit into any of the above sections and serves to illustrate the diversity of the powers of the Poor Law Unions. Generally they include statistical returns, and registers of inmates births, deaths, admission and discharge, staff records, records relating to lunacy and aged and infirm, appointments of Officer's and other staff, registers of foster parents and boarded out children, apprenticeship registers and indentures, and reports of the chaplain.

The Poor Law began to be dismantled with the passing of the 1929 Local Government Act, although it was not officially abolished until 1948. It was gradually replaced by a more specialised system of residential institutions for children, the infirm and the elderly.