Ask the Archivist - poor relief records

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Every week whilst we're closed, we're inviting our wonderful community to submit questions on a different topic for our archivists to answer. Topics are announced each Monday on Facebook and Twitter. You have until the Thursday to ask questions, then we post a selection of questions and answers on the Friday.


Our first topic was one of our most popular and fascinating sets of records: poor relief applications! The Q&A is below.


Q1: How do I start researching the applications?


If your ancestor was born or died in a poorhouse or they lived there during a census year, they would have made an application for relief. People could also apply for a small grant of money to cover rent, food, clothing and medicine and would remain in their own home. These applications have been electronically indexed by name for Glasgow (up to the early 1930s) and for certain parishes in Dunbartonshire, Renfrewshire and Lanarkshire (up to 1900). To request a search, all you need is the person’s full name, birthplace and approximate year of birth.


Q2: Can the databases and poor relief applications be accessed online?


Not yet but we do have access to the databases at the moment. Request a search by contacting us on our social media channels and we’ll reply to you with the reference details of the application if one is found. The next step would normally be either to arrange a visit to our public searchroom or to request a copy from us for a small fee. At the moment, we’re not able to offer these options but you can email us at archives@glasgowlife.org.uk with the details when we re-open.


Q3: What did applying for poor relief involve?


To be eligible, a person needed settlement in a parish. There were three major parishes in Glasgow: City, Barony and Govan. A person could gain settlement by being born there, through marriage or through residency for a set period of time. To apply, the person visited their parish office where an inspector of the poor noted key details: name, age, birthplace, religion, dependents and their details, marital history, details of the applicant’s parents and parents-in-law and previous addresses. On the same day (or the following one), the inspector visited them in their home to confirm their address. He also checked other records to confirm previous addresses and the exact dates of marriage and births within the family. Once he came to a decision, the outcome was recorded in the application itself.


Q4: Could people make several applications?


There should only be one application per person but this isn’t always the case! A person may have applied under a slightly different name or applied to a different parish which resulted in multiple applications. If you do find more than one for the same person, it’s worth checking them all as you never know what extra details an inspector may have included.


Q5: Did families sometimes change their names in the applications e.g. Ellen Magill instead of Helen McGill?


Yes, the inspector recorded the name as he heard it which resulted in variant surname spellings and in some Helens becoming Ellens! It’s worthwhile searching for variations of particular names in case this happened to your own ancestor.


Q6: What’s the largest number of children you’ve ever seen on an application?


Jessie Robertson Cleghorn (whom we featured at the start of the week) and her husband had 13 children including a set of twins. Has anyone come across a larger family in the applications?


Q7: Have you ever seen an application where the people mentioned went on to be famous or infamous?


Yes, a few! For example, we have one made in 1921 on behalf of the socialist John Maclean who was in prison at the time for sedition. The application relates to his transfer to hospital for refusing food (ref: D-HEW16/13/513, 77011). There’s more information about it on The Mitchell’s Family History website at https://bit.ly/3bvejGw

We also have a few applicants with famous connections including Gilbert Begg whose uncle was Robert Burns (ref: D-HEW10/6/19, 85).


Q8: What are your favourite applications and why?


We’ve had fun thinking about our answers for this one! Between us, here are some of our favourites:


There’s Elizabeth Adams Cruickshanks who left her husband to elope with her lover. Her husband found out when he returned to their house to discover her note: “you need not be vexed about the child for many’s the lie I told you about it. The child is not yours but William Pinkerton’s.”


Another is the application of Neil McCallum who scored Celtic’s first ever goal in 1888. When he finished playing, he became a general labourer and applied for relief in 1906 after suffering blood poisoning in his hands.


The City and Govan parishes were notable for adding in extra detail about the applicants. One application includes an exchange of letters between a husband and wife who separated (one willingly and one unwillingly). Many of the phrases in the letters are familiar to us today including the comment that there are plenty of other fish in the sea!


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