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Poor Relief



The Poor Law in Scotland after 1845


The Poor Law (Scotland) Act 1845 established parochial boards in rural parishes and in the towns, and a central Board of Supervision in Edinburgh. The system of poor rates spread more widely, although it was still not universal even in the 1860s. The parochial boards built poorhouses for those categories of paupers who did not receive 'outdoor relief', normally in the form of small weekly sums of money. More often parishes combined to build 'combination poorhouses'. 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 they 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). Thereafter the parishes usually kept separate series of records of poor law applications, distinguishing 'Ordinary' applications for relief from those from the 'Able-Bodied'. The parish system had several inherent defects. One was a tendency for levels of relief to vary between different councils. Another was the level of disputes, often litigation, between parishes as to which was responsible for the maintenance of an individual pauper or pauper family. Larger authorities were needed, partly to bring a measure of standardisation and partly to ensure that the burden of poor relief was spread more equitably.

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 a national system, the forerunner of the modern 'social security' (National Insurance Act 1948). Various welfare functions remained with local authorities, however, including provision for the homeless, homes for the elderly, care of the mentally and physically handicapped and various functions relating to children, including adoption and fostering. These and others were reorganised in 1968 and regrouped to form Social Work Departments (Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968).

Poor Relief Records
The classes of record which are mainly used by researchers in the period 1845 to 1930 are:
Parochial Board/Parish Council Minute Books
Poor Relief Registers
Board of Supervision/Local Government Board Records
Parliamentary Papers

Those with a special interest in the form of the post 1845 records are referred to the records themselves, normally in local authority record offices, and also to the Annual Reports of the Board of Supervision. The Appendix to the Fifth Report (1851) lists the record series to be kept by poorhouses, and the Appendices to the Tenth and Twentieth Reports (1855 and 1865) list the records to be kept by inspectors, with illustrations of the formats of the most important series. Not all the records referred to are available for public access, or at least not as far forward as 1948. Local authority adoption records will normally be closed, other than to those having a personal interest in them. Access may be through a counselling service provided by the Social Work Department. For registers of poor and records of applications for relief, the practice of authorities has not yet been standardised and closure periods may vary.

Bibliography and Links
R Cage, The Scottish Poor Law 1745-1845 (Scottish Academic Press, 1981); Anne Gordon, Candie for the Foundling (Edinburgh, 1992); Cecil Sinclair, Tracing your Scottish Ancestors (Edinburgh, 1997); J A Haythornthwaite (ed.) Scotland in the Nineteenth Century: An Analytical bibliography of material relating to Scotland in Parliamentary Papers 1800-1900 (Aldershot, 1993). The National Archives of Scotland website has a fact sheet on the subject of the Poor.

Other Knowledge Base entries on Poor Relief
Poor Law before 1845
Registers of the Poor
In the SCAN Virtual Vault you can see examples of poor relief records from Scottish archives.


Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the difference between a poorhouse and a workhouse?

2. What do the terms 'indoor relief' and 'outdoor relief' mean?

3. What is meant by the terms 'test case' and 'test ward'?

4. Where can I find parochial board, parish council and poor relief records for a parish?

5. Why might the information in a register of the poor contradict information in other records?

6. Where should I look for information on poorhouses for a school project?

7. I have seen the term 'General Register of the Poor' used. Does this refer to a central register of the poor, kept nationally for the whole of Scotland?

8. If poor relief registers do not survive for a parish, is it worthwhile looking in parochial board/parish council minutes for information on a pauper?

In the SCAN Virtual Vault you can see examples of poor relief records from Scottish archives.