Workhouse records can lead to other avenues of research

Posted by Kristen Hyde on August 26, 2016 in Site

This blogpost about the Medway Poor Law Union Records was written by archivist, Alison Cable. You can find our more about the Medway Archives here. 

History of the Medway Poor Law Union Records
The Medway towns and the Hoo Peninsula were served by three Poor Law Unions, and of the three Victorian workhouses, remnants of the Strood and Chatham workhouses still remain in the towns. The Board of Guardians’ records for the three Poor Law Unions are held at Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre. They have proved to be popular collections for those researchers visiting the Centre over the last twenty years. The workhouse registers yield information not just about local citizens but sometimes, temporary visitors such soldiers based in the towns’ barracks, and sailors based at Chatham.

The story of Friend Carter
One case of note that recently came to light, related to an elderly man named Friend Carter. He had appeared in the 1891 census as a lodger in the village of Cliffe and by all accounts he was still in employment- despite being aged 86- as a cement labourer at one of the local cement works. However, by May 1898, Friend was listed as having died in Strood workhouse (also known as North Aylesford Union workhouse) at the age of 91. Although the early admissions registers for Strood have not survived, it has been possible to discover that Friend Carter had admitted himself to the workhouse in the Spring of 1897. The survival of the creed registers had meant that his admission could be traced by searching through the index .The simple facts laid out in the registers, of an old man, admitting himself to the workhouse, would seem to imply that he was alone and without family or friends. However, this turned out not to be the case.

The workhouse death register revealed that Friend was buried in Wouldham, a village south of Rochester and a solitary ‘F’ in the right hand margin provided a clue that his family arranged for him to be buried. These stark facts about the last year of the life of an elderly working man formed the basis for some further research by a TV production company. They discovered that Friend had experienced some sadness in his life, when his own son had died a pauper, been buried in a pauper grave, and had his body handed over for medical dissection. The idea of a pauper burial was a great taboo and it transpired that Friend worked and saved hard for as long as he was able in order to put money by for his own funeral. It would seem that in 1897 Friend could no longer financially support himself, and pay for his lodgings, so he had no choice but to gain admission to the workhouse where he would have access to some medical care in the workhouse infirmary.

Friend Carter was the great great great grandfather of Fern Britton. As part of the filming for an episode of a TV series specifically looking at the old workhouse system, Fern visited the archives to consult the workhouse records. With the help of the archive staff, the story of Friend Carter’s final years began to unfurl. According to the Board of Guardians minute book, Friend ‘s family had negotiated with the Strood Guardians to ensure that his savings would not be touched. The family would pay towards his upkeep in the workhouse, and the dreaded pauper burial would thus be avoided – they would be able to use his savings for the funeral. The simple ‘F’ in the workhouse death register had flagged that he wasn’t alone in the world, that he had family, and they took him away for burial.


Other discoveries in the records
The workhouse registers also evidence pandemics, epidemics, social trends, child protection, population movement; military connections: the Hoo Board of Guardians collection includes registers specifically from the workhouse infirmary. A quick glimpse at the admissions and discharges during the 1914-1918 shows numerous admissions for the treatment of diphtheria, scarlet fever, and scarletina. In July 1915, 7 children aged 10 and under and all from the small village of Stoke were admitted to the workhouse infirmary with diphtheria. All the children recovered.

Occasional notes in the margins proffer more information about the patient, such as Albert Dalton, a soldier stationed at Grain Fort, admitted in 1917 with diptheria, home address : Smith St, London, regiment 2nd Northants. The entry even includes his regimental number. Albert was discharged as recovered.
Other entries in the discharge registers evidence, the number of teenagers who went directly from the workhouses into service. Quite often the address to which they went to work is given, and very often they were sent to places many miles from the county from which they came. Some young men are noted as leaving the workhouse and going straight into the Navy or other armed forces- army regiments are often noted in the margins.

Begin exploring the Medway Poor Law Union Records now on Ancestry

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