Kent Poorhouses & Workhouses

Kent Poorhouses & Workhouses

Introduction

Workhouses & Poorhouses in KentThere were numerous reasons for people to be in the poorhouse/workhouse and the majority were not the “idle poor” (although some were!) and therefore a stigma should not be attached to them. No one will ever know the true reasons why parents abandoned their children or why some had reached the position where admission to the workhouse was better than struggling to survive outside but sometimes a record will have survived to give some clues (as I have found with my own ancestors). One thing is for certain that when researching workhouse records there will be many sad stories coming to light but also some positive ones.

It is difficult to generalise about the conditions in either the parish poorhouses/workhouses or the Union workhouses (which replaced those operated by the parishes under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834) as it depended very much on the staff and Guardians running them. In the case of the Union workhouses this was complicated by the interference of central government. However, in general those inmates in the more rural Kent workhouses would have done better than those in the large industrial or metropolitan ones.

Parish Poorhouses and Workhouses

In many people’s minds the word “workhouse” has been associated with the Victorian ones described by Charles Dickens but prior to this each parish, if there was sufficient need, had their own usually small (but not always) poorhouse/workhouse or paid someone or another parish to house their poor. This could be some distance away. In other cases parishes combined together to produce larger poorhouses/workhouses. Originally these poorhouses were set up to provide accommodation for the old and infirm – other poor were provided with money or goods to help them through their problems. However, this would change throughout the centuries as various Acts changed the criteria of the people to be accommodated and from poorhouse to workhouse (where work had to be performed), and back again.

Union Workhouses (from 1834)

The Union replaced the relief originally supplied by the parish and in the early days it appears that in general the Guardians, who had the responsibility of running the Union (which included responsibilities outside the workhouse), tried to do the best for the poor but were overridden on numerous occasions by the central government body of the time. However, as time went on their attitude hardened, partly as a result of the workhouses not saving them the money expected and also the increase in the number of persons applying for relief.

Records

Various people were associated with the poorhouses and workhouses, not only the people who stayed in them but also the staff who worked within them and the tradesmen who supplied them. Where the records survive it may be possible to learn their stories as many different types of records were kept, including those not directly related to the workhouse itself.

Union workhouse records are relatively easy to locate as they can be found under their respective headings as catalogued by the various archives but with the Parish poorhouses it will be necessary to search through the general parish records, which may have them recorded in the catalogue separately.

Within these records there is no indexing of the names (even if there is an index at the front of the book it is unlikely that all names will have been entered) and therefore you should be prepared for potentially a long search. Although indexes exist they tend to concentrate on the baptism, burials and marriage registers for parishes and the Admission and Discharge registers for Unions.

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