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Victorian workhouses and the new Poor Law

Bill Barlow
5 May 2018

By Stephen Hawke

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was squarely aimed at driving down the cost of relief for the poor. New purpose-built workhouses would contain and control the poor throughout the United Kingdom. The conditions for paupers prepared to enter the workhouse were to be worse than those of the poorest free labourer outside the workhouse and only those entering the workhouse would be entitled to succour from the parish purse. The workhouse was to be so repellent that only those who lacked the moral determination to survive outside would be prepared to accept relief in the workhouse.

Families were broken up and segregated. Communication between family members in the separate wards was largely prohibited. Meagre diets, harsh conditions and corruption resulted in national scandals.

In the often highly moralistic tone of the times, one aim of the new Poor Law was to make the workhouse consequences so dire for unmarried mothers that they would be deterred from unwanted pregnacies. This provision proved a step too far and was repealed in 1844.

At our SWERD meeting on Wednesday 9 May 12.30 to 2.00 pm at GSV we will discuss the impacts of the workhouses and the Poor Laws on the lives of our southwest  England ancestors, as well as the resources available at GSV and online to aid your research.  A grim but fascinating subject! 

Our SWERD meetings are free for GSV members and copies of presentations and meeting notes are provided to GSV members who join the discussion circle's email list. 







Historic Somerset records donated to GSV

Bill Barlow
24 April 2018
Rev Dr Warren Bartlett OAM with Somerset records, 2018.


The GSV has received a very generous donation from a retired member, Rev Dr Warren Bartlett OAM. 

Warren has donated around 50 volumes of historic records for Somerset (including some for Dorset and Devon), which were produced over many decades by the Somerset Record Society.  The volumes include transcriptions of rare and now lost collections of wills, Tudor tax records, lists of rebels from the southwest and much, much more.  Warren has also donated a large number of Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries journals.  The volumes and journals are a treasure trove of resources for Somerset and southwest England researchers.

Some examples from the collection that Warren is donating are:

Somerset Wills - pre-war transcriptions of some 1,200 Somerset wills that were subsequently destroyed in the bombing of Exeter in 1942;

The Monmouth Rebels, 1685 - details of around 4,000 people from Somerset, Dorset and Devon charged with treason and similar offences after the failed rebellion against James II in 1685.  Many of these people were executed or transported as 'slave labour' to the Caribbean; and

Two Tudor Subsidy Assessments for the County of Somerset: 1558 and 1581-82 - which lists the names, villages, details of land values or goods held and tax payable for thousands of Somerset people who were subject to tax by Elizabeth I.

These will be available in the GSV Education and Research Centre as soon as they have been checked and catalogued.  Follow the GSV blog and Ancestor for more news about this.

GSV is very appreciative of this donation to its Collection and expresses its thanks publicly to Warren for his great generosity in sharing this resource.


Stephen Hawke

Convener, GSV South West England Research & Discussion Circle (SWERD)




The old Poor Laws (pre-1834) and Southwest England

Bill Barlow
10 April 2018


Vagrant being punished in the streets, woodcut c. 1536 (Source unknown)


1547 - the new reign of the boy-King Edward VI was marked with a draconian approach to controlling the kingdom's poor.  Penalties for the purported 'work-shy' such as whipping and leg irons were nothing out of the ordinary, but the new law extended this to branding with the letter V (for vagrant) and being made a parish slave for two years.  Recalcitrant vagrants faced lifetime slavery or hanging.  Children could be seized without their parents' consent or knowledge.  Those charged with enforcing the law faced severe penalties if they failed to mete out these punishments. Hard and dangerous times indeed.

We'll be discussing the old poor laws (pre-1834) and their impact on our ancestors in south west England at our SWERD meeting this Friday, 13 April, 12:30 to 2:00 pm at GSV (GSV members only).  A vast array of records were created in administering the poor laws and we'll discuss how you can access these to find fascinating new insights into your ancestors' lives.  Our May meeting will focus on the impact of the new poor law, 1834 onwards, the era of the notorious Victorian workhouses.
Stephen Hawke
Convener, SWERD - GSV Southwest England Research and Discussion Circle

The DNA of Cornwall: talk at SWERD

Bill Barlow
28 March 2018
DNA and family history

South West England Research & Discussion (SWERD) is one of a number of Discussion Circles that the GSV hosts for its members. These are part of the annual membership and there is no limit to the number you can participate in, beyond your own time. Doing your own research can be exhilarating but having the chance to share your problems, and findings, with others is even more fun.

This report of the recent SWERD meeting - Wednesday 14 March 2018 - from Stephen Hawke gives a good idea of the value of this circle on South West England. [Bill]


Meeting Notes

  1. Introductions

    We had a very full house, with 45 attendees at the meeting (including four new SWERD members and some visitors from the DNA discussion circle).
  2. Presentation – Dr Joe Flood - DNA and Genealogy: The DNA of Cornwall

    Dr Joe Flood is both the Administrator of the Cornwall DNA projects on the FamilyTreeDNA website and also runs a One Name Study on the Coad and Coode surnames. DNA research has been particularly useful in resolving brickwalls and establishing global connections for the Coad and Coode family researchers. Joe’s presentation included interesting anecdotes on the family myths, surprises and new social connections found through combining the One Name Study and DNA research.

Joe’s presentation covered three broad topics (all with fascinating case studies, charts and research findings):

Firstly, we covered the use of autosomal DNA research – this included commentary on the relative costs and ‘usefulness’ of the offerings from the various DNA test providers. This aspect of research is particularly useful for confirming family connections and uncovering ‘new’ cousins.

Next we turned to Y DNA research – the research that follows the male-line. Again, this has proved very useful for resolving brickwalls and Joe provided examples of successes in extending and joining the various Coad/Coode family trees.

The research pages Joe administers on the FTDNA website currently have 600 members on the Cornwall project (autosomal DNA research) and 120 members on the Cornwall Advanced Y DNA project. Joe advised that there is also a project page for those with Devon origins. These projects are free to join (after you’ve done your DNA test), the data and discussion sections are a great learning tool and they provide the opportunity for feedback and help from very experienced researchers. I’m a fan – I joined both projects with my DNA test results a few months ago and straight up connected to some ‘new’ third cousins here in Melbourne who’ve provided fantastic photos (late 19th and early 20th century) and new aspects to our shared family history.

The final section of Joe’s presentation turned to some of the deep ancestry material, including the DNA connections of some members of the Cornwall DNA projects to the Beaker people who settled in Britain and Cornwall several thousand years ago. This aspect of the research has also found some pockets of ‘very rare DNA’ amongst some members of the Cornish Advanced Y DNA project. Joe is keen for more of us with Cornish heritage to join the FTDNA projects to help expand his and your research and findings.

I’m afraid my notes are not doing Joe’s really interesting presentation justice. Fortunately, Joe has made a copy of the presentation available to SWERD members and it has plenty of detail in the slides to show the depth and detail you can take up in using DNA research.

I’m also aware that this is a complex area and to help you through that complexity GSV is rolling out a number of new education sessions on different aspects of DNA research. There are some details in the current issue of Ancestor and keep an eye on the GSV website for updates. These will be popular, so make sure you register ASAP for these to secure a place. The first session is on 17 April – you can book for this through the ‘All Events’ section on the frontpage of the GSV website.

At the meeting we passed around the very large book Joe has written – Unravelling the Code: The Coads and Coodes of Cornwall and Devon – and descriptions of the book and on-line purchases are available through www.lulu.com/spotlight/coad

Joe has uploaded his presentation to his webpage (address as below) and from a quick look he has other papers of interest to DNA researchers on his page as well: https://rmit.academia.edu/JoeFlood/Other

I also want to acknowledge Joe’s dedication and generosity in providing his presentation at GSV. He is still recuperating and went above and beyond the call of duty in providing us with his very informative presentation. Thanks also to one of our members who saw to Joe’s safe homeward journey. 

  1. Next meeting

    The next meeting will be held on Friday 13 April 2018, 12:30 to 2:00pm. The discussion topic will be 'Our poor ancestors', with a focus on Poor Laws and workhouses in the southwest.  Many of us had ancestors who were subject to the Poor Laws or who spent time in workhouses and we’ll look at the materials available to research their lives.  Start thinking on what you know of your poor ancestors in the southwest and how you've researched them, and come along to join in a fascinating discussion in April. If you are not a GSV member, join up and join in!

    Stephen Hawke, SWERD Convenor