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.


The National Archives, Narberth Union Poor Law Correspondence Files

Poor Law Records (Part Two)

What I’d originally intended to be a two-part post on Poor Law records will now be in three parts. This is the second and it assesses two further sources.

Records of Narberth Union Board of Guardians

Other than the Abstracts described in the previous post, only a small part of the Union’s records has survived. The minutes of meetings are extant for parts of the period from 1834 to 1900. For local historians they provide an indispensable record of the decisions of this important group of men as the local newspapers’ coverage of these meetings is at best sparse. For example the minutes record the contributions of each parish to the Union to cover the costs of providing relief so it should be possible to track the peaks and troughs of the local economy from these data. It is also possible to assess the response of the guardians to emergencies such as the 1849 cholera outbreak.

For family historians there are some scraps to chew on as, particularly in the early minute books, there are references to cases of individual paupers. For example, in 1838 the Union agreed to cover the cost of the funeral of Philip Walters, aged 54 of St Issells, as his family had no money to bury him if the Union didn’t. In 1870 the minutes record that the Union clerk had to write to Richard Hare of St Issells requesting a contribution of 5s a week towards the maintenance of his son in the Joint Lunatic Asylum.

The most consistent entries in the minutes record the grant by the Union’s medical officers of  certificates to people suffering from illness or accident and who needed relief to help them stave off destitution. The case of Zachariah Harries (collier of Begelly and later St Issells) is a good example as he is listed at least 9 times over a 20-year period receiving certificates for typhus, smallpox, typhoid fever and lastly a bad kick to his knee. He did well to survive all those!

Parish Records

Again only a small portion of the parish poor law records have survived and that only for Begelly. These include the following:

  1. Overseers’ Account Book, 1833-1933
  2. Poor Law Accounts, 1837-1848
  3. Poor Rate Assessment, 1842

The most interesting to me, at least, is the first of these as it lists various inhabitants who were exempted in the 1840s from paying poor rate due to their own poverty, my ggg-gfather, William Nash and his mother being two of them. Another entry covers the agreement of the parish to pay 4s a week to the guardians in Liscard in Cheshire to support Elizabeth Lewis and her 4 children – formerly landlady of the Begelly Arms.

The Poor Rate Assessment also has a specific use. If you have looked in vain on the Begelly tithe award and map for your ancestors in the early 1840s, check the Assessment as it records all inhabitants in the parish, not just landowners and tenants. Because it uses the field numbering system established in the tithe award to locate each individual it is possible to track the habitation of each head of household using the Assessment. Using this I was able to find the places where William Nash and his mother lived.


If you are unfamiliar with the history of the Poor Law in England and Wales, take a look at Peter Higginbotham’s excellent site, workhouses.org.uk. It is a real treasure trove of information including modern pictures of the former Narberth workhouse buildings.


Pembrokeshire Record Office, Narberth Union Board of Guardians minutes (cat ref SPU/NA/2-4)

Pembrokeshire Record Office, Begelly Poor Law Records (cat ref HPR/110/15-18)

Poor Law Records (Part One)

In such a poor area as Saundersfoot the Poor Law system played an important role in keeping many out of destitution. This two-part post assesses the surviving Poor Law records to see what value they have for both family and local historians.

The history of the Poor Law can be split in two: firstly, from about 1600 until the mid-1830s, each civil parish was required by statute to raise funds to support its own poor. Records for our area for this first phase are scant: only the Overseers’ Accounts for East Williamston for 1781-1807 & 1826-27 have survived but these are largely illegible due to damp and also incomplete.

From 1834 onwards the system changed to a union of parishes run by a board of elected guardians. The local union was based at Narberth and covered 46 parishes surrounding the town with the new workhouse, completed in 1839, on the road south from Narberth to Begelly. Several sets of records have survived and this first post looks at the most detailed of these, namely the “Abstract and List of Paupers” published by the Union twice a year. Fifteen copies are extant out of a possible run of 21 for the years 1872-1881. The following breakdown shows some of the interesting data contained in the abstracts:

1. All those paupers receiving “outdoor” relief either in kind or by money showing age and address of recipient, reason for relief. Names are listed by parish.

Several of my ancestors appear:

  • Susanna Nash (my gggg-gmother), aged 83 of Thomas Chapel, received £1 13s due to old age. This payment lasted for 11 weeks at 3s a week in 1871
  • The sum of £1 1s was paid by the Union towards the cost of Frances Nash’s funeral (my g-gfather’s sister) in 1881

2. All those paupers receiving “indoor” relief in the workhouse showing age, the number of days in the workhouse and the parish covering the cost.

  • William Nash (aged 10) and his brothers John (8) and Isaac (7), all of Begelly and cousins of my g-gfather, each spent 236 days in the workhouse in 1878. (Their widowed mother was in Carmarthen gaol at the time)

3. All those paupers in the Joint Lunatic Asylum at Carmarthen including the name of the parish covering the cost of their stay.

  • John Belt, aged 23 of Small Drink, Begelly, was in the workhouse in late 1878 but by 1881 he had been moved to the Asylum

This is rich information for family historians.

For local historians the period covered by these abstracts is of significant interest as well. Throughout the 1870s the history of local mining was punctuated by several lengthy stoppages. If these were due to strike action, the Union was under no obligation to offer relief but with little money in the local economy there were many others who suffered as well. Together with other sources, the data in the abstracts can be used to assess the response of the Union to these calamities.


My thanks to Gerry Brawn for pointing this source out to me.

I have copies of the abstracts for the parishes of Begelly & East Williamston, Reynalton and St Issells. If you have labourers, miners and widows amongst your ancestors living in these parishes at the time but you can’t get to the Record Office, leave a Comment on this post or email me at snorbensblog@aol.com and I will check the lists for you.


Pembrokeshire Record Office, The Narberth Union Abstract and List of Paupers (cat ref HDX/1026/1/x)

Pembrokeshire Record Office, East Williamston Overseers’ Accounts (cat ref HPR/110/13 & 14)