Your Ancestors Will Include the Poor–Worthy or Unworthy

The poor in the British Isles were cared for under the Church and under the Government at different time periods. Separate institutions were also provided, called charitable housing for welfare purposes. Even private individuals and families were involved.

A new study of the Almshouses in Early Modern England: Charitable Housing in the Mixed Economy of Welfare, 1550-1725 written by Angela Nicholls and published  by Boydell Press, 1 Mt Hope Ave, Rochester NY 14620-2731 is  now an available guide.

“Drawing on archival collections, the book analyses why almshouses were founded and the reasons for the continuing popularity of this particular form of charity: who the occupants were, what benefits received, and how residents were expected to live…reveals a surprising variation in the socio-economic status of almspeople and their experience of almshouse life.”
(Book Jacket)

Nicholls places her findings in the context of the debates about poverty and poor relief. Comparisons of three counties in England: Durham, Warwickshire, and Kent. Twenty-nine almshouses survive from the period before 1550; Ninety seven were founded between 1550 and 1725 in these three counties. There were a total of 1,019 almshouses in England as a whole by 1660.

The over-60 years of age population was about 9.89% of the total–on the eve of one of largest emigration periods to America, early Canada, and the West Indies. England was a young population–the most likely to move to a new country.

The author presents a map of Warwickshire showing the relation of the Hearth Tax to the foundation of almshouses, parish by parish and those areas that were exempt from the tax.
My research includes the county of Warwick and I found this map and its information very instructive.

The bibliography of poor-law and almshouses records for the City of Coventry, the Diocese of Lichfield Record Office, and the records located in the Warwickshire County Record Office is most helpful. I am tracing silk weavers, originally from Europe to England and the City of Coventry. Coventry suffered complete parish record loss for St. Michael’s Church when bombs hit the church in 1940 and destroyed it. The Bishop’s Transcripts survive and there seems to be obvious omissions–people known to live in that parish are not recorded. Other records are clearly needed.

Please don’t conclude that your ancestors were not “poor.” My ancestors, gainfully employed and prominent artists were the children of parents who occupied the almshouse the last years of their lives because they had no where else to go where they could receive the care they required–everyone who could have helped had already emigrated to America.

This study demonstrates what the records were and how the system operated–you can apply Nicholls’ findings to those places in England and Wales where your early British ancestors come from. Your favorite British genealogist, Arlene Eakle.

PS I get a whole new outlook on hard-to-find ancestors when I discover a descriptive inventory of records that have survived the vicissitudes of time! Visit also




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