Were your forebears unfortunate enough to fall on hard times? Genealogists researching in the Glasgow area often hope that they were, because if so, they would have applied for poor relief – and the Glasgow poor law records are some of the most revealing in the country, a treasure trove for the family historian. While the records themselves date from 1845, they contain fascinating information about many individuals born before then.
It’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking, “Well, my ancestors were always in work and didn’t get poor relief”, because even those who applied but failed to qualify for assistance could have been recorded. People often sought help when a spouse or child died, when their health failed, or when suffering the adverse effects of old age. Any circumstance that prevented someone from earning a living could qualify him or her for relief, including having small children to care for.
Relief was usually provided in financial form, but might also be offered as clothing, and where specifically requested, schooling for children. Paupers considered unable to look after themselves and with no family to support them could end up in the dreaded poorhouse (the Scottish equivalent of the English workhouse).
And the amount of personal and family information taken from applicants is phenomenal: not just name, age, and place of birth, but names of parents, spouse, and children (sometimes grandchildren, too); income received, rent paid, health conditions, occupation, and a history of addresses often going back years. Details of marriage and death are also found in some entries. It’s not unusual to come across a single record that lists four generations of one family.
If you’re researching ancestors who were not originally from Glasgow, but perhaps hailed from Ireland, the Scottish Highlands, or Europe, these records are doubly valuable, because they usually give a specific place of birth, instead of just “Ireland” or “Prussia”. Knowing the native town or parish of a pauper was essential to the inspectors of the poor, as any support given in Glasgow could be reclaimed from the applicant’s parish of birth. The inspectors’ reports added to the application forms are full of exchanges between parishes, and often give extensive histories of paupers’ dealings with the poor law system over many years, sometimes until they died. Their comments about the paupers’ lifestyles and circumstances can be quite eye-opening, too.
The application forms have been name indexed, and the resulting database is searchable at Glasgow City Archives. This makes the one million-plus poor relief records easy to use and identify by name, birthplace and age before ordering the original application volumes to the search room.
So, if you find an ancestor lived or died in Glasgow (especially in a poorhouse or asylum), your next stop should be the Mitchell Library in Glasgow’s city centre, where the archives are housed. And if you can’t visit in person, the archivists can provide a list of professional researchers who are available to do the fun bit for you!
Written by Alison Spring
Scottish Ancestral Research
Interested in researching your Scottish ancestry? You can visit her website here.