Parliamentary legislation concerning the poor began in 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 poor were proper objects of poor relief. A statute of 1579, which remained the basis of the poor law until 1845, firmly established these rules. Its twin aims were that 'the puyr aiget and impotent personis sould be as necessarlie prouidit for', and that 'vagaboundis and strang beggaris' should be 'repressit'. 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 (1579, c.12, APS, iii.139).
The parish authorities responsible for the poor were inevitably the kirk sessions and the heritors. The 1579 act also provided that parishes might levy a poor rate, but in practice this was unusual. Even in the 1790s less than 100 of the 878 parishes in Scotland imposed a rate, although by then the number was growing. For the most part the parishes relied on church collections, seat lettings, charitable mortifications and other sources of income. 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. The Industrial Revolution also brought cyclical trade depressions, with large numbers of able-bodied unemployed, who were not entitled to poor relief. In any case a church-based system could not be justified when so many had seceded from the established church. In 1843 a Royal Commission of Inquiry was appointed, whose recommendations led to reform two years later.
Poor Relief Records
The survival of records at a parish level relating to poor relief is complicated by the overlapping responsibilities of kirk sessions, heritors and (after 1845) parochial boards. The most likely source of information at parish level is the records of kirk sessions, but heritors minutes should be consulted too. Parochial Board records sometimes include pre-1845 material, which began life as heritors' or kirk session records. Examples are minute books (of the heritors or of a heritors' committee on the management of the poors fund), poor rolls, registers of poor persons, and accounts. Anyone researching poor relief (and other parochial matters) is strongly advised to look at the catalogues to the records of all three of these bodies (kirk sessions, heritors, and parochial boards) for any given parish. In this period the classes of record which are mainly used by researchers are:
Kirk session records
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.
The Poor Law in Scotland 1845-1930
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 body 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.
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
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.
Poor Relief Registers
Before 1845, under the old poor law, not all parishes kept formal records of poor. The only references to individual paupers, other than minutes of kirk sessions and heritors authorising payments, may be financial accounts. Where registers were kept, it was often the practice to have two rolls, a 'permanent roll' for paupers who were expected to be chargeable for the remainder of their lives, and a roll of 'occasional poor' for the others. 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 forms of records created by the new poor law were closely controlled by the Board of Supervision which had direct oversight, both of the local inspectors of poor and of poorhouse governors. At least some types of record were printed in Edinburgh as volumes of blank forms, to the Board's specifications. Not all the local boards used these forms, but even if they did not, their records necessarily include the same information. The main record types (other than the minutes of the board and its committees) were those kept by the inspectors, in particular the Registers of Poor and the Record of Applications for Relief.
Registers of Poor
General Registers of Poor
Children's Separate Registers
Applications for Relief
Adoption and other children's records
Miscellaneous inspectors' records
Use of poor relief registers
Those with a special interest in the form of these 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.