Sunday, August 18, 2013

My ancestor was too poor ...

He didn't leave a will, he didn't pay taxes, he just didn't appear in "other records" ... but of course there is a good chance that he/she appeared in Poor Law records.  Alternatively, was he/she not poor enough to appear in Poor Law records?

These presumptions are so wrong and I have literally just proved it with my 3xgreat grandfather!

I think perhaps I have neglected Poor Law records in my own family history research ... and I may just have to register for the GSV Seminar "Poverty & Poor Laws of England, Scotland & Ireland" on Saturday 31st August.

Paraphrasing from David T Hawkings book Pauper ancestors: a guide to the records created by the Poor Laws in England and Wales [GSV Library location: 362.5 HAW] ... Almost every family will have someone recorded in the Poor Law records.  Possibly a pauper being moved from one place to another, receiving parish relief, being examined about the paternity of a bastard child, or an employee or inmate of a workhouse.  Or maybe they were a Guardian of the Poor, parish constable or an overseer, a medical officer or a rate collector?  Were they tradesmen, farmers or landowners who would have all contributed to the poor rate?  Whoever they are, they will be recorded somewhere amongst the under-utilized mass of documentation of the poor.

Another misguided presumption is to "localise" your ancestor when considering Poor Law records.  Many Irish did seasonal work in England & Scotland and relied on the Poor Laws to get them home - in other words, they could turn up anywhere!

And what about my 3xgreat grandfather James NIALL above?  Too poor or not poor enough?  Both?  BUT browsing the Board of Guardians records from the London Metropolitan Archives I chose to browse the Tower Hamlets, St Matthews Bethnal Green "Rough Examination Book 1853-1854" as my silk weaving Huguenot ancestors lived there for some generations.  Of course I wasn't expecting to find anything but thought I should at least look.  A quick check of the A-Z index in the opening pages - I didn't find my James NIALL but I did find a Charles NIALLS [sic].  Definitely worth a look!  And there is no question that Charles is my James's older brother and Charles's situation may just help to explain why my ancestor left England and migrated to New South Wales just a few years later.

I've paid little attention to Poor Law records in my family history research and now realise how wrong I have been!  I think I've just taken up another seat at the GSV Seminar - perhaps I'll see you there?


  1. Suzie - thank you for another possible source for finding that missing information or even an elusive ancestor. Any one who has decided that some of their ancestors just disappeared will be heartened and should attend this seminar

  2. I found this article while searching for my Nial ancestors from Bethnal Green - I also have a 3x great grandfather called James Nial who came to Australia. I've never seen the above photo before but thought perhaps we could be related and be talking about the same person? Please let me know if it's possible to chat to you about this. :) From Maree Nial.

    1. Hi Maree, This blogsite is not maintained (see last post) but if you would like to send me an email at I will advise contacts for the author of that article, Susie Zada. Bill Barlow GSV Blog Editor.