Lives of Victorian poor go online at National Archives

  • Published

Records detailing the lives of the Victorian poor, including those in workhouses, have been published online.

The National Archives project involves letters and reports passed between poor law authorities in England and Wales.

Project director Dr Paul Carter said the records were "unrivalled" as an important source for examining the lives of the Victorian poor.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 centralised the way poverty was managed and relieved, and set up workhouses.

"Able-bodied paupers" were offered a place in the workhouse as a last resort.

Conditions were intentionally harsh because workhouses were designed as a deterrent. Dr Carter said the newly published records showed people often felt they would "rather starve than go to the workhouse".

Access to the records is free to the public, who can search for them on the National Archives website.

Organisers say the selection of records can provide an insight into the stories of individual paupers, evidence of neglect and cruelty, and information on workhouse staff.

Material to study indoor and outdoor poor relief - which provided food and assistance but no accommodation - as well as education, local politics and labour history can also be found.

Dr Carter said: "They tell you a great deal about the lives of the poor in the 19th century.

"So although in this particular period [the UK] was the workshop of the world - it was the wealthiest nation on the planet - there are those people who drop through, who don't benefit greatly from that. What these records are about are those individuals."

The 18-month project, Living the Poor Life, involved more than 200 volunteers across the country, including local and family historians, who researched and catalogued 19th century records from the Ministry of Health archive.

The volunteer editors were given access to the digitised correspondence of 21 Poor Law Unions, which were set up as a result of the 1834 Act. Previously, poor relief had been largely the responsibility of the parish.

The new poor law unions reported to the Poor Law Commissioners, based in Somerset House in London.

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