Our dynamic band of volunteers working with the historic records of Much Wenlock Borough have been spending some weeks cataloguing the records of Poor Law administration in the historic borough of Much Wenlock. The records are probably the most comprehensively surviving example of pre 1834 Poor Law records that I have ever come across.
1834 is a key date in the history of the Poor Law in that it was the Poor Law Amendment Act of that year that brought about the amalgamation of parishes into ‘unions’ for the purpose of Poor Law Administration and indoor ‘relief’. Much Wenlock, however, had a workhouse by 1732 which by 1776 could accommodate 30 people. In 1793, all 27 of the workhouse inmates were women or children. That some of the older children were apprenticed to Lancashire textile mills presumably explains why several of them, such as Mary Goodall, in 1818 (ref. WB/H/1/4/10/52), subsequently have to explain to the churchwardens and overseers that they have become pregnant by Lancashire cotton workers!
The records reveal a great deal of bureaucracy: there’s settlement examinations, pre-birth bastardy examinations, post-birth bastardy examinations, pauper apprenticeship indentures, bonds of indemnification and removal orders, to name but seven! These documents reveal a human story of migration, struggle and poverty as poignantly as any Thomas Hardy novel.
Volunteers Enfys, Sylvia, Richard, Beverley, Barbara and Anne have been doing a great job of revealing these hidden histories of people about whose lives we would otherwise know nothing. Because the records are so comprehensive I am sure that at some point it must prove possible to reconstruct the story of one or more of these characters (that’s the poor of Much Wenlock, not Enfys, Sylvia, Richard, Beverley, Barbara or Anne!)
We’re very grateful for the contribution of all our volunteers: together they are unlocking Shropshire’s heritage.
John Benson, Project Manager