Poor Law Records (Part Three)

This the third and final post assessing the value of surviving Poor Law records for both local and family historians.

Poor Law Correspondence Files

This is an extensive collection of documents held at The National Archives (TNA) recently brought to light by an equally extensive digitisation project. Unfortunately the Narberth Union files were not covered by the project. While the documents do contain rich pickings for family historians, searching them is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack – without knowing if the needle is there in the first place! For local historians with an interest in social conditions, these files are an important source. Going through the entire collection takes up to 3 days and, if you undertake this task, do not wear clean clothes!

There is a good description of the contents of these files on TNA’s web site but in, simple terms, they contain letters and reports sent to the Poor Law Commissioners in London together with notes of their actions and letter out. The commissioners’ role was to oversee the management of the Poor Law by the local unions throughout the country. Several of the local “great and the good”, recognising the importance of this role to influence local actions, frequently wrote to them to lobby on behalf of various local inhabitants where they perceived a wrongdoing by the local guardians. Rev Richard Buckby and James Mark Child, both JPs from Begelly, were frequent correspondents. Their letters, recorded in the TNA’s files, provide rich material about life in the Saundersfoot area from the 1834 to the end of the century.

For example, in 1846, Child wrote a letter on behalf of Jeremiah Phillips, a collier from Begelly, stating that he had had to give Phillips money out of his pocket to ensure he and his wife didn’t starve. Phillips was suffering from asthma and his wife crippled by rheumatism. Child asked why the guardians weren’t doing more for Phillips and his wife. The Narberth Union board’s response, again recorded in the files, rebutted Child’s complaint stating that they currently paid Phillips 4s a week and had received no complaints from Phillips himself that this was insufficient.

A second example comes from a short series of letters investigating the death of Emma Jenkins in 1846 at Kingsmoor, St Issells. One of the letters describes Jenkins’ diet in the last year of her life as salted meat, cabbage and potatoes for lunch and, in the evening, a cup of tea with bread and butter.

Much of the correspondence concerns the administration of the Poor Law in the locality. With so much money going through the system the opportunity for fraud was rife, something the commissioners attempted to keep an eye on by ensuring that effective auditing was carried out. For example, Lewis Nash, assistant overseer in St Issells, was investigated in 1849 for the embezzlement of £59 from the parish fund, a large sum of money for someone of his background. One of the letters described him as “wholly unfit to be appointed to such an office” and stated that the St Issells vestry had not taken out the correct sureties to cover such an eventuality.

Sources

The National Archives, Narberth Union Poor Law Correspondence Files

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