CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Dorset Magazine today CLICK HERE

Tracing the fate of pauper ancestors in Dorset

PUBLISHED: 09:40 03 February 2015 | UPDATED: 14:33 25 March 2015

Wimborne Union Workhouse inmates and staff Christmas 1905 - Photograph courtesy of Priest's

Wimborne Union Workhouse inmates and staff Christmas 1905 - Photograph courtesy of Priest's

Archant

Before the founding of the British welfare state, families that fell on hard times often ended up in the local workhouse. Thanks to meticulous record keeping the fate of your pauper ancestors in Dorset can easily be traced

The Union Workhouse, Poole - Photo: Poole Museum ServiceThe Union Workhouse, Poole - Photo: Poole Museum Service

Prior to 1834, most towns and villages had erected a poorhouse, or ‘house of work’, which was intended to provide relief for the most destitute and needy inhabitants of the parish. Until this time relief had been administered on a largely ad-hoc and parochial scale, and was met out by elected officials known as Overseers of the Poor. As the population started to swell as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and economic hardships began to bite in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, the Old Poor Law, which had been in place since the Elizabethan era, finally began to collapse under the strain.

Corruption and abuses of the Old Poor Law at this time were widespread and it was widely believed to act as a disincentive to paupers by allowing them to become too reliant on ‘hand-outs’ from the parish. New measures were taken to instigate reform on a nationwide basis, and in 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act was finally passed to stop the problem in its tracks.

Under the terms of this new Act, parishes were to be organised into Poor Law Unions, each served by its own union workhouse, where paupers would be compelled to reside as a condition of receiving relief from the parish. Each union was governed by its own Board of Guardians, made up of elected representatives from each of the parishes concerned. They were responsible for the daily management of the workhouse, employment of the staff, conduct of the inmates, and the administration of poor relief.

Here in Dorset some 282 parishes, containing upwards of 150,000 inhabitants, were initially grouped into 14 unions - this was reduced to 12 in 1836 due to the amalgamations of Cranborne with Wimborne, and Purbeck with Wareham. The largest of the unions was Dorchester, which consisted of 39 parishes under a board of 43 guardians; the smallest was Poole, with only eight parishes and 11 guardians.

Wimborne Union Workhouse inmates and staff - Photograph courtesy of Priest'sWimborne Union Workhouse inmates and staff - Photograph courtesy of Priest's

In Dorset the majority of the unions managed to establish a workhouse within a few years of the Act being passed. Whilst some attempted to reduce the costs by adapting existing buildings, such as at Blandford and Wimborne, most constructed new workhouses based on the designs laid down by the Poor Law Commissioners. The most popular design was the cruciform, or square, plan, which was adopted at Bridport, Cerne, Dorchester, Poole, Shaftesbury, Sherborne, Wareham, and Weymouth, whilst the Beaminster and Sturminster unions were built to the hexagonal, or “Y”, design. Both plans, however, essentially consisted of a central block with wings radiating out from the centre; these buildings were then surrounded by a series of exercise yards, with a high wall running around the perimeter to enclose the entire site. Besides being efficient in terms of space, the designs also helped to enforce one of the main clauses of the New Poor Law: the segregation of men from women, children from adults, and the aged and infirm from everyone else.

Whilst this was particularly harsh on young families, it was merely part of a wider system to break the spirit and ensure that life inside the workhouse was less desirable than the worst possible conditions on the outside. Inmates could expect to receive daily menial tasks, a meagre diet and harsh punishment as part of the regime.

The Pauper Offence book for the Beaminster Union Workhouse, which is now held at the Dorset History Centre, provides a chilling insight into the stringent measures taken by the Board of Guardians to tackle even minor misdemeanours. In January 1842, for example, one John Aplin found himself “locked up” for 24 hours on a bread and water diet for being “disorderly at prayer time”, whilst in January 1856 John Staple was committed to prison for 28 days for refusing to work. Damage to property was taken particularly seriously, as in April 1844 a pauper by the name of Isaac Hallett was whipped for simply breaking a window.

Living conditions were particularly dire in the early days of the workhouse; overcrowding, squalor and disease were rife. Extreme cases, such as the Wimborne Union Workhouse scandal of 1839, quickly attracted public outrage when the true extent of the inmates’ suffering was reported in the pages of the local and national newspapers. Instances such as these eventually caused the reform of workhouse conditions in the latter half of the nineteenth century; although the institution still remains a symbol of extreme want and oppression to this day. Local newspapers often contained reports of errant paupers who had made off with workhouse property, such as clothing and blankets; sadly, for most the only form of escape was in a wooden box, destined for a pauper’s grave in the local parish churchyard.

Given that so many people passed through the doors of the workhouse system, it is not unusual to find a pauper inmate whilst researching your family tree. The rigorous administration of the Poor Law created a wealth of documentation which can be particularly useful for finding out more about ancestors who fell on hard times. Here in Dorset the original records can be found at the Dorset History Centre, on Bridport Road in Dorchester. Surviving records include minute books, lists of those receiving relief, baptism registers for those born in the workhouse, inmates’ property registers, pauper offence books, and more. It is worth contacting the Dorset History Centre before your visit to check that they hold the records you require call 01305 250550, or you can consult their online catalogue at archives.dorsetforyou.com/adlibwebapp/default.aspx.

Luke Mouland is a professional geneaologist and historian. He runs the website Kith and Kin from his home near Sherborne. Find out more at kithandkinresearch.co.uk.

The Wimborne Workhouse Scandal

In 1839 it was revealed that the inmates of Wimborne Union Workhouse were forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, with 13 paupers sharing five beds. Smallpox had broken out in December 1838 and in such dreadful conditions the disease quickly spread and several inmates perished. Local surgeon, George Augustus Place, directed the public attention to the Wimborne workhouse by writing to The Times. This sparked public outrage, eventually forcing the Poor Law Commissioners in London to launch an inquiry into the matter.

***

READ ON

Where to start when tracing relatives and the meaning behind some Dorset surnames - It’s fascinating tracing relatives but where do you start? In a new series genealogist Luke Mouland provides useful tips and turns up some interesting Dorset names

How photographs in uniform can provide clues about the role ancestors had during the Great War - Many husbands, fathers, fiances and sons going to war had their photograph taken in uniform. These poignant mementoes can provide vital clues about the role your ancestor had during the Great War

How Christmas was celebrated at Dorset’s grand country houses - Shooting parties, balls and dinners were all part of the festive celebrations at Dorset’s grand country houses. It was also when a maid could be waited on by her master or a butler dance with his mistress

0 comments

Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files
Comments

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Dorset visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Dorset staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Dorset account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

More from Out & About

Friday, December 7, 2018

This easy walk takes us into Hardy territory as well offering some glorious views towards Weymouth and Portland

Read more
Thursday, November 29, 2018

Here are some Dorset walks, easy and challenging, to get you out and about over the festive period

Read more
Wednesday, November 28, 2018

If you’re willing to brave the cold this Christmas Day, check out Dorset’s festive swim calendar for the best organised dips taking place in 2018

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

Confusion reigns on the county’s eastern border

Read more
Thursday, November 15, 2018

From festive light switch-ons and Santa’s Grottos, to German Christmas markets and late-night shopping, we’ve covered what’s on in Dorset this season

Read more
Monday, November 12, 2018

From your first step, you will see superb views from hilltops and farmland footpaths on this walk

Read more
Sunday, November 11, 2018

Martin Clunes and his family have called West Dorset home for over two decades. Here he shares some of their favourite local places

Read more
Monday, November 5, 2018

To mark the centenary of the end of World War One we visit some of the memorials erected across Dorset to remember the fallen in the ‘war to end all wars’

Read more
Friday, October 26, 2018

This lovely walk takes us from watercress beds to a church famous for its life-size carvings of apostles

Read more
Thursday, October 25, 2018

Autumn is a great time to brush up on your gardening knowledge with the help of some experts, as well as see some well known gardens in a different light

Read more
Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The guide to Dorset’s best firework displays and bonfire events happening in 2018

Read more
Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Prepare to experience the paranormal this Hallowe’en as Visit Dorset reveals some of the county’s most haunted pubs, stately homes, historic buildings and tanks

Read more
Monday, October 15, 2018

Dorset villages are some of the most beautiful in England – think winding lanes, thatched cottages and a cosy pub or welcoming tea room. We suggest ten of the prettiest villages to visit in the county

Read more
Friday, September 14, 2018

Follow in the footsteps of the Romans on this lovely walk that takes in rare habitat, ancient woodland and glorious views

Read more
 
A+ South & South West

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Subscribe or buy a mag today


subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search