Providing for the Poor

Poor Law: research guide 3

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Poor relief in East Lothian has featured in an exhibition at the John Gray Centre, and you can see related images and information here.

Poor Law in Scotland before 1845

Parliamentary legislation concerning the poor dates back to the 15th century. Early statutes were mostly for the suppression of idle beggars, but gradually two important principles emerged. All parishes were to be responsible for their own poor, but only certain categories of ‘deserving’ poor were identified.

A statute of 1579 made provision for a Poor Rate. The local authorities of each parish estimated the cost of maintaining their poor and charged the local inhabitants accordingly. The administration of this was carried out by the kirk sessions and heritors who were local landowners responsible for the upkeep of the school and church. This statute firmly established these rules, which remained the basis of the poor law until 1845. Those entitled to relief through age, illness or otherwise, were to go to the last parish in which they had lived seven years, or failing that the parish of their birth. Married women could adopt their husband’s parish of birth or residence.

The system suited rural society reasonably well but was ill-adapted to the large industrial towns of the early 19th century, where the poor tended to be congregated in slum areas. In 1843 a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed, whose recommendations led to reform two years later.

Poor Law in Scotland 1845–1930

The Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845 established parochial boards in rural parishes and in the towns, with a central Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. The system of poor rates spread more widely. The parochial boards built poorhouses (indoor relief) for those categories of paupers who did not receive ‘outdoor relief’, normally in the form of small weekly sums of money, or medicine or clothing. During the second half of the century, government increasingly found it convenient to give added powers to parochial boards, such as the registration of births, deaths and marriages, and in particular public health.

In 1894 parochial boards were abolished and replaced by wholly elected parish councils, but with their functions practically unchanged. The trade depression of the 1920s led to the abandonment of the rule that the unemployed were not entitled to poor relief (Poor Law Emergency Powers (Scotland) Act 1921).

Poor Law in Scotland since 1930

In 1930 parish councils were abolished (Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929). Thereafter the poor law authorities were to be the county councils, large burghs and the four cities, acting through Departments of Public Assistance (or Public Welfare). These maintained a system broadly similar to that of their predecessors until 1948, when the existing poor law was entirely abolished and almost all of it replaced by the modern ‘social security’ (National Insurance Act 1948). Records from this period are subject to closed access.

Scottish poorhouses

Poorhouses, or almshouses, were first established in Scotland in medieval times, principally in burghs. Between 1845 and 1930 over 70 poorhouses were constructed in Scotland, many serving a number of parishes (called ‘poor law unions’ or ‘combinations’). The regime, diet and living conditions in poorhouses were austere, partly to discourage applications from those who could rely on family support instead. Often deserted wives or single women with children turned to the parish for support – usually as a last resort. On the other hand, poorhouses provided medical and nursing care of the elderly and the sick, at a time when there were few hospitals and private medical treatment was beyond the means of the poor. In East Lothian, 15 parishes combined to fund the construction of the combination poorhouse at Prestonkirk, East Linton in 1864.

Main records held at JGC

Parochial board & parish council minutes

Details claims made to the Parish Council and grants of relief given. Often used in conjunction with the poor relief roll.

Please note that due to Data Protection issues applications less than 100 years old are closed.

List of available records
Archive reference no. Parish Dates
ELCC/10/1 Aberlady 1868–1930
ELCC/10/2 Athelstaneford 1842–1927
ELCC/10/3 Bolton 1846–1930
ELCC/10/4 Dunbar 1889–1930
ELCC/10/5 Garvald 1845–1930
ELCC/10/6 Gladsmuir 1846–1930
ELCC/10/7 Haddington 1849–1930
ELCC/10/8 Humbie 1802–1930
ELCC/10/9 Innerwick 1867–1930
ELCC/10/10 Morham 1849–1917
ELCC/10/11 North Berwick 1845–1954
ELCC/10/12 Oldhamstocks 1845–1930
ELCC/10/13 Ormiston 1866–1930
ELCC/10/14 Pencaitland 1845–1930
ELCC/10/15 Prestonkirk 1845–1930
ELCC/10/16 Prestonpans 1846–1967
ELCC/10/17 Saltoun 1893–1930
ELCC/10/18 Spott 1845–1930
ELCC/10/19 Stenton 1845–1930
ELCC/10/20 Tranent 1848–1930
ELCC/10/21 Whitekirk 1845–1930
ELCC/10/22 Whittinghame 1847–1930
ELCC/10/23 Yester 1845–1930
ELCC/10/24 Dirleton 1870–1890

Applications for poor relief & registers of the poor

These are forms completed by the Inspector and contain such details as name, age, religion, reason for claim and outcome of the claim. Some were offered casual relief such as coals or clothing whereas others were offered regular payments or sent to the Poorhouse. In most cases details of family are also included.

Separate registers for children were introduced in 1865.

Please note that due to Data Protection issues applications less than 100 years old are closed.

Poor1 Poor2

Pages from rolls of the poor for Dunbar and Prestonkirk 

Records of East Lothian poorhouses

These records deals with the day-to-day running of the poorhouse and do not tend to mention inmates by name. However, they are very useful in giving an insight into the way the poorhouse was run and the conditions there.

List of available records
Archive reference no. Title and Date
PR1 House Governor’s Journal (1865–98)Excerpt Minutes of Poor House Committee Meetings (1890–1906)
ELCC/1/3/4/2 Minute book (1884–1902)
ELCC/1/3/4/3 Minute Book (1902–26)
ELCC/1/3/4/3 Minute Book (1926–31)

Reference material

Moody, David. The Poorhouse and Poor Relief in East Lothian. East Lothian Department of Leisure, Recreation & Tourism, 1983. At Local History Centre, shelfmark A27.8.

‘The Workhouse: The Story of an Institution’: www.workhouses.org.uk

A very comprehensive site giving background information on the working of poor relief and access to records and further resources




One thought on “Poor Law: research guide 3”

  1. eileen says:

    I´m trying to find out all I can about my 3X gr. grandfather John Beaumont, Gardener in Haddington, who was a pauper and buried by the church.. I´d like to find out if he was in a poorhouse, and where he would have been buried.

    Thank you,

    Eileen Hoppe

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