The Poor Law Project #2

The Poor Law Project #2 is a volunteer project based at Cornwall Record Office (CRO).

Working on the minute books of the Boards of Guardians of the Poor Law Unions in Cornwall, volunteers are enhancing our existing catalogue entries by creating detailed summaries of the Board’s meetings from 1837-1930.

Continue reading

The project began in spring 2012, as a follow-on from a project with the National Archives called ‘Living in the Shadow of the Workhouse’, when volunteers at various record offices across the UK catalogued some of the correspondence of their local Poor Law Unions. Some of the volunteers who worked on the correspondence project wanted to make more of our local Poor Law records accessible and the Poor Law Project #2 was born.

CRO holds a large collection of Guardians’ minute books - 256 volumes - covering St Austell, Bodmin, Camelford, St Columb, Falmouth, St Germans, Helston, Launceston, Liskeard, Penzance, Redruth, Stratton and Truro. Minutes survive from all the Cornish Poor Law Unions and although there are gaps where individual books have been lost, the records for some areas are almost complete.

The amount of detail varies between Unions, but overall the books give a fascinating insight into the day to day running of the Unions, their workhouses and the lives of the poor. The appointed Guardians were from the better off parts of society, including clergymen, farmers, businessmen and magistrates. They seem to have been generally well motivated and to have taken their duties seriously. It is ironic that, despite their good intentions, they created a system that was so hated by those who were supposed to benefit from it. To the modern eye there is an odd mix of genuine concern for the welfare of the poor and a callous enforcement of rules.

Although some of the content is routine administration, the minute books are full of information of interest to both social and family historians, including:

  • the names of Guardians, medical officers, staff, paupers, tradesmen (and sometimes the alleged fathers of illegitimate children) and their appointments, concerns and misdemeanours
  • details of food and clothing allowances and other supplies
  • details of illnesses and medical matters, including references to St Lawrence’s Hospital, Bodmin (known initially as the County Lunatic Asylum) and Cornwall Hospital, Truro
  • other indicators of social health and change including education, sanitation, discipline and punishment
  • dealings with the Poor Law Commissioners in London and local reaction to new laws

The project is currently being delivered by a team of five fantastic volunteers and is largely self-run. They manage the ordering, allocating and work needed on each of the minute books; take any digital photographs required; they co-created the standards and rules for how they would describe the meetings and now edit and check each other’s work. Other volunteers have contributed too, including an ‘off-site’ volunteer who received digital images of the minute books and then emailed his contributions back to the office. The team would love to have new volunteers to help with this project. If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Cornwall Record Office.

The links below will give you an idea of the additional information available. They will open as pdf documents and are searchable using the Ctrl +F function on your keyboard. We hope the extra information will be added to our CRO online catalogue soon.