The Idle Poor and the Deserving

 

Southwell WorkhouseI have just been to Southwell Workhouse in Nottinghamshire to look over an actual workhouse that is now run by the National Trust as a museum.

By doing this and seeing the layout of the accommodation, with its day rooms and exercise yards, my understanding of how these institutions worked has become clear.

 

In past times, before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, the care of the poor members of the community fell to the monks in the various religious houses throughout England and Wales. With the reorganisation that the dissolution brought, those poor ancestors of ours who had the misfortune to fall on hard times, would then have become the responsibility of their parish.

Under this parish system, the old poor law had coped well enough until around the year 1800 when, under increasing demands being made on the system the authorities were forced to review the process for supporting the poor.

The situation was that unemployment had risen to new heights, as a result of the burgeoning industrialisation of the country. Britain now required less men to make the goods that had previously been manufactured by workers in the cottage industries.

On top of this the disaster of a succession of bad harvests that meant those who subsisted in rural areas found it difficult to feed themselves, added to the demand placed on the poor law system as it had been constituted.

As if this was not enough for the Government, the ending of the Napoleonic Wars had meant that a great number of soldiers now had come back from France and they had no work waiting for them at home.

The Deserving Poor.

In my family tree I was, at first, surprised that none of my ancestors seemed to have ended up in the workhouse. As I found more and more forebears I had become complacent that all my lot seemed to make it in the world without having to “Go On the Parish” and then I found one.

It was a sad shock for me as the lady in question had been the wife of a Master Mariner, the mother of several children who had all married and were making their way well in the world. But there she was in one of the census spending the end of her life in the workhouse!

Her husband was nowhere to be found in the census and so I speculated that he must have died abroad, not being able to find his death record. She, poor woman, had nowhere to go but into the workhouse.

But the workhouse was also a place where medical care could be given to those with little means in a time before the availability of free hospitals or medical insurance. So perhaps this explains why she was there? The deserving poor were segregated from the idle poor having different quarters and exercise yards.

The Idle Poor.

The number of workhouses had grown after the enactment of the Workhouse Test Act of 1723. The thinking behind this was that this new Act would help to prevent irresponsible claims being made on a parish’s poor rate. Something that concerned those who had to find the money to run the system as the funding of it was paid for by the wealthier members of the parish.

By the 1830s, in England and Wales, most parishes had at least one workhouse to send its poor to.

So what would any of our ancestors, unlucky enough to have found themselves in this position have faced? Those poor unfortunates who had no option but to seek “indoor relief” would have to endure unpalatable conditions inside the institution. It was designed to be thus so as to put people off from entering the workhouse unless they had run out of alternatives for survival outside.

Families were split up. Men and women segregated with children over seven separated from their mothers and forced to live in the children’s section.

On admission they would have to undress, surrender their own clothes until they were discharged, have a thorough wash and then dress in the workhouse uniform which was usually made of rough and shapeless material. This was all aimed at discouraging people from entering the system by stripping away part of their identity.

The belief, at the time, was that the undeserving poor were idle and so they were made to do tedious jobs. Inmates who were not aged or infirm would have to work for their keep. The jobs given to them were deliberately chosen to be monotonous and boring. At Southwell they would grind corn, pick oakum or, for the females, do laundry work.

Workhouse tasks

The picture to the left is of an old rope from the docks that the inmates would pick apart so that the fibres could be sold back to the docks to be used in the caulking boats and ships.

 

 

So what about the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and how this shook up the system?

There will be more detail about the workhouse inside my course on English and Welsh family history at: http://www.FamilyHistoryResearcher.com

 

Join Family History Researcher

Send to Kindle

Well Worth Family Historians Looking For A Will

A will and testament from the 19th century

A Will from the 19th century

It was not just the rich who would leave a will in the Britain of the past. For this reason, family historians looking into their family tree, should consider it worth researching whether their ancestor did so. This area of family history research is often recorded as Wills and Administrations. I will write about Administrations in another post concentrating today on Wills.

Technically what we refer to in common speech as a ‘will’ is in fact a joint deed that is legally known as ‘The Last Will and Testament’ of the person who has died and it was in 1540 that in England it came into existence. From that date on a party could now devise, or gift, their ‘Freehold’ land by the means of a will.

In order for a deceased’s wishes to be carried out an executor, or executrix, would need to be appointed by the departed to administer and distribute their estate after their death. The executor/executrix would need to apply to a court for the will to be carried out and that court would have to be satisfied the will was valid and that it was the deceased’s final will, and testament. This is the process known as “proving a will”. When satisfied the court then issues a grant of probate that allowed the executors to finally carry out the will’s terms and distribute the deceased’s property.

Before 1540, in England, a testament was only concerned with what is known as “personality” or personal property, which is a person’s moveable goods and chattels. This was because a person’s interests in any “real property” (that is the land and any buildings that they owned) would automatically descended  to the
deceased’s immediate heir, normally the first son. Ecclesiastical law, however, held that at least one-third of a man’s property should pass to his widow as her dower and then another one-third should go to all his children.

As you delve into this area of family history you may possibly come across something called a nuncupative will, or perhaps you will see it referred to as an oral will. If you consider that in some places, in years gone by, very few people other than the clergy could read and write. So if your ancestor was dying, with no one available with the skill to write down his wishes, then the court may have relied on the deceased’s oral declaration of their last wishes to another party. Probate would only be granted after the courts had listened to the sworn evidence of those persons who had heard that declaration being made.

As I am sure we can all imagine, this sort of will would often lead to disputes. Needless to say nuncupative wills were made invalid in England by the Wills Act of 1837. There being one exception, however, and that is in the case of members of the armed forces on active duty, for whom they are still legal today.

You can tell such wills apart in the records, as they can usually be identified because they start with the word: Memorandum.

A holographic will, on the other hand, is a will and testament that has been entirely handwritten and signed by the testator. In the United Kingdom, unwitnessed holographic wills remained valid in Scotland up until the Requirements of Writing Scotland Act 1995. This Act of Parliament abolished the provision and so such wills written after 1st August 1995 are now invalid in all of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.

Family historians, may well find that the ancestor that they though would just not have written a will, may well have done so. Consider that even if your ancestor was not wealthy, but a person who owned the tools of a trade, then they may well have wanted to make sure that these were passed on to the right person.

Another lesson that I have learnt is that finding wills can be difficult. I had searched many times, over the years, in various online places before I found the probate for my 2x great-grandfather on the recently available Ancestry Wills & Probate data.

Henry Thomas Thorne, for forty years worked on the River Dart first as the steersman of the railway ferry the Perseverance and then as captain of the GWR Steamer The Dolphin making the short crossing between Kingswear and Dartmouth. He died in 1908 and left effects of £202 17 shillings. That’s about £15,700.00 now, using the retail price index.

As with all family history research, don’t give up on blanks in your family tree, simply resolve to return to unfruitful searches at regular intervals as more data becomes available all the time.

The Nosey Genealogist.

Send to Kindle

Wills & Administrations in English Family History

Wills can be of great use to any family historian for a number of reasons. They can furnish you with names of relatives, give you a description of the property that your ancestor owned at the time of their death and even reveal their favourite charity. Or though in my case I suspected that the charity that my aunt chose to leave the residue of her estate to was really her solicitor’s favoured charity and his suggestion!

Wills are one of the few documents written by your ancestor. For this reason they may give you an insight into their attitudes, social standing and their lifestyle. Perhaps, if you are lucky they can also explain family feuds and even expose scandals.

If, however, you discover that one of your ancestors seems to have been cut out of the will, you should always consider that this may not necessarily mean that they were disinherited. You should be open to considering that other arrangements had already been made for them in the lifetime of the deceased.

Quite a few family history researchers assume it is not worth checking if their ancestors left a will because they think their ancestor’s background precluded them from doing so. It is, however, wrong to believe that only a minority of people from the top of society left wills. Yes, it may be true that most people who left wills had some property of some kind or another. But wills can be found for people from amongst the very widest range of backgrounds.

Whilst it is perhaps true that only a small percentage of the population left a last will and testament, you should remember that for every person who did so means that there will be at least one other person mentioned in the document and this at least doubles your chance of finding a connection to your family tree, even if they are a distant relative.

It is possible, but not all that common, to find a will belonging to your family that pre-dates the parish registers, or even better where parish registers and the other primary sources have been destroyed or gone missing over the years.

You should know that before 1858 wills were generally proved in the church courts. In order to find a will in this time period will need you to have some understanding of the church hierarchy and how this bears relationship to the place or area that you are researching within.

So, what is a will?

It is a formal document stating exactly what a person desires should happen to their possessions after they have passed on. The person making a will is referred to as the Testator and they make a Last Will and Testament. This is actually a joint deed, the Will and the Testament.

Last Will and Testaments became the legal means of passing on one’s property in England in the year
1540. This was because it was only from that date that ‘Freehold’ land could be gifted or “devised” through a will. Before this date a “testament” was legally only concerned with what the law knows as “personality”. this is a term referring to personal property, that is a person’s moveable goods and chattels.

Why wasn’t it possible to pass on land? The answer lies with the fact that interests in “real property”, or the land and buildings your ancestors owned, would descend automatically to the deceased immediate heir. The church law, however, stated that at least one-third of a man’s property should pass directly to his widow as her dower and then one-third to all his children.

In theory these rules could not be broken, however property owners found ways that they could get around them. As an example, whilst “Copyhold land” – land held from the Lord of the manor – could not be left in a will before 1815, it could still be given up or “surrendered” to be used in a will. This effectively meant that it could be left to whomever a person wanted! Other methods of circumnavigating the rule was to transfer one’s property to trustees who would hold it during the owner’s lifetime as per that person’s instructions.

If you are lucky and find your ancestor has left a will you will see just how useful it is to the family historian.

Send to Kindle

Surname Research in British Family Trees

I’ve heard tell that there are over 25,000 different surnames in use in the British Isles today!

When you consider that, until the medieval times, most people would not have had a hereditary last name, this does seem quite a variety. And yet, in family history research, there is the perennial problem of how to research a common surname, indicating that for some of us there would perhaps be a preference for even more examples of surnames to have been added to the total.

If we were to go back to the time before the 11th century, then most of the population of these isles were known by a personal name, or nickname and would not have possessed a surname. The church would have baptised them with Christian names, usually those of a saint, as this was of more concern to the ecclesiastic authorities.

It would have been as a result of the arrival of written documents, in the 11th and 12th centuries, that the need for people to be identified more precisely would have led to the gradual adoption of surnames. The problem associated with the use of nicknames was that they were not fixed. A person could be known by several during the course of their lives and so this was not conducive to the operation of a bureaucracy.

Most surnames fall into one of six types.

There are the Place names derived from towns, areas or perhaps a farm. So we assume that the ex-Formula 1 racing driver, Derek Warwick’s name comes from the town in the Midlands.

The second type is taken from a physical feature. So we have such names as Hall, Westlake, Thorn and my parent’s next door neighbours the Underwoods.

Thirdly there are the surnames that owe their origins to a nickname, or physical characteristic. The likes of Large, Long, Short etc. fall into this category.

Johnson and Richardson are example of the fourth type; those that are from family relationships. Mostly these are from “son of…” but I have to say until I started doing a little research I was unaware that there are some derived from the maternal line, thus the son of Matilda is Tillotson.

A fifth type to consider is that of an ancestor’s occupation. so we have Cooper, Smith, Archer and Baker, to name but a few.

Lastly there are the surnames that are derived from forenames. Alan, Stephens

But this is not all, because there are the surnames that have entered common use in this country that are from elsewhere. So in England you have Scottish, Irish, French Huguenot and Jewish surnames all established and quite common. What is more, surnames may have had several different origins and may have evolved over time, so making the precise definition very difficult.

Surnames may be important to our family history research, but it should be remembered that they are an imprecise science. While many of them may be quite local and remain so even to this day, the chances are that your ancestors moved from their place of origin and so making it more difficult for you to tie them down. It is, therefore, very unlikely that a surname will be able to pinpoint a family’s origin, except in the case of a rare name which owes its existence to a particular location, where the name itself is very common.

Names changed over the years for a variety of reasons, some because the holder was illiterate and it was interpreted to be spelt in one way or another by the vicar, some changed because the holder decided to change it. I am fascinated why my surname, Thorne spelt with an “e” only goes back to my 2 times great-grandfather who in the 1861 census is without the “e” and yet in the 1871 census is with!

So while we all have surnames today, it is by no means certain that yours has not changed through time.

Send to Kindle

Researching family in Jersey, part 8: Military Records

Being rather close to the continent as it is, Jersey has had more than its fair share of unwelcome visitors. The French invaded in 1781 and the brave Major Pierson beat them back but died before the end of the battle: the artist John Singleton Copley painted the scene (some years after the event) and the resulting picture is one of Jersey’s iconic images.

 

The years that followed this were uncertain ones, and the uncertainty became worse after the French Revolution. There was a real concern that the French would try again. But at the start of the 1800s, General George Don was appointed as Jersey’s Governor-General.

 

General Don put in place a massive programme of fortification works and new roads, and alongside that he carried out two censuses in 1806 and 1815 to track where the able bodied fighting men were. In addition to this, the censuses recorded the sizes of the households and the number of women, girls and under-aged boys.

 

Transcripts of both censuses are kept at the Archive. They were originally transcribed in the original format, names by parish and vingtaine, but there is also a single combined list of names for the 1815 Census. It gives an indication of the position of the listed man of the household and whether he was an ordinary soldier, or a drummer, or providing a horse.

 

Alongside the local militia forces, the British army maintained a significant garrison in Jersey right up to the Second World War. Its main sites were at Elizabeth Castle and Fort Regent, and regiments rotated in and out regularly. The Army doesn’t maintain a single definitive list of which regiments served when in the Jersey garrison, but there are partial lists compiled by CIFHS members in the Archive. There are also a small number of baptism, marriage and burial records which were kept specifically by the garrison rather than the parish of St Helier – and these may be worth a look.

 

Nearly at the end. The next post looks at what you can get from books, newspapers and photographs – until then,  à bientôt!

 

Guest blog by James McLaren from the Channel Islands Family History Society

 

Send to Kindle