Going In-Depth with Scottish Poor Law Records 1

Prior to 1845, the responsibility for assisting the poor lay jointly with the Kirk and the ‘heritors’ or landowners. The landowner raised money from assessments. You may find notation of poor assistance in the accounts books of the Estate owners. The Kirk raised money through mort cloth rentals and fines for immoral behaviour.  To find whether your ancestor made application to the Kirk, you can check through the Kirk Session records for the parish in which your ancestor resided. These are not yet online, but will be coming to the ScotlandsPeople website in 2017. The Kirk Session minutes may give details regarding the situation, or the notation may simply be in the accounts for the Kirk. It will state the parish that the person in need of assistance is from if the person was from outwith the parish.

Post 1845, the responsibility for the poor was transferred to the Burghs and Councils through the passing of the Poor Law Act. The Act established parochial boards in the parishes and towns, and ensured a central Board of Supervision which was based in Edinburgh. The Board of Supervision was granted the ability to raise taxes in order to cover the poor relief payments.

Poor relief could be made in a variety of forms:

  • money
  • coal
  • clothing
  • food

Scotland used a system of  'out relief’. This allowed for the person in need of relief to remain in their own home and receive regular small payments. Poor relief was to be a method of last resort and if you had family, then the expectation was that if you were in need, it was your family's obligation to provide assistance. This is clearly seen in the questions that are asked during the application process.

The 1845 Poor Law Act also allowed parishes to operate poorhouses. Sometimes two or more parishes would join together to establish ‘combination’ poorhouses. This meant that the funding for the poorhouse was a combined responsibility of the joint parishes.  As well, inmates could be from any of the supporting parishes of the combination poorhouse.

Poor relief was not for able bodied persons who were unable to find work. It was for those who were infirm or incapable of working. This might be men who were injured on the job, people who had a chronic illness, the elderly or perhaps women with young children whose husbands had deserted.   Other eligible persons would be those with intellectual or mental health  impairments. In addition, the person who was seeking relief would need to prove that for whatever reason, their family were unable to assist them in their time of need.

Because of the restrictions around eligibility, not everyone who applied for relief was approved to receive relief. However, the poor law applications followed the applicant for several years and as circumstances changed, they may become eligible at a later time. The records give tremendous insight into the lives of those who applied.

In seeking information regarding the applicant, the council tried to determine not only eligibility by also who ultimately was responsible for the applicant. If the person was deemed not to have lived in the council area for a minimum of 7 years, then they were sent back to their place of origin to attempt to get relief there.

The questions on the application were quite thorough and provide a depth of insight not as clearly seen in other record sets. The information includes:

  • Name
  • Age
  • Sex
  • Marital Status
  • Date and place of marriage
  • Name of spouse
  • Names of any children residing in the household
  • Ages of children residing in the house
  • Status of child - whether working or in school
  • If working, wages of child (in this case, the children would be expected to contribute to the household and offset any financial need)
  • The applicant's address
  • Monthly rent
  • Occupation
  • Employer or former employer
  • Religion
  • Name of the church
  • Names of parents of applicant
  • Name of parents of applicant's spouse
  • Parent and in law status as to whether alive, working etc. Again the applicant would have been expected to reach out to family for assistance before applying for poor relief.
  • Any insurance companies applicant has a policy with
  • Any trade union or friendly societies applicant might belong to

A person would be deemed to be partially or wholly disabled and the disablement would be listed. If there was a disablement, then the person who certified the disability (generally a doctor) was also listed. The applicant would also be determined to be either partially or wholly destitute. And a sum of money would be granted based on these determinations.

The second page of the application keeps a running list of any change in circumstances over the years. These are usually limited to one or two lines as an update and allow you to follow the lives of your ancestors in detail.  Changes in circumstance might also lead to changes in the amount of relief that was granted. For example, the money might be reduced if one or more of the children entered the workforce. Often the person remained on the poor rolls until they died, or entered an institution - either poor house or asylum.

Poor relief applications are kept with the local county archives for the area where your Scottish ancestor lived.


About Christine Woodcock

Scottish born, Canadian raised, Christine Woodcock is a genealogy educator with an expertise in the Scottish records. She enjoys sharing new resources to assist others in their quest to find and document their heritage. Christine is also a lecturer, author and blogger. She is the Director of Genealogy Tours of Scotland (www.genealogytoursofscotland.ca) and enjoys taking fellow Scots “home” to do onsite genealogy research and to discover their own Scottish heritage.

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