Workhouse ancestors

Brian Blessed visits City of Westminster Archives to find out more about his workhouse ancestors

Actor Brian Blessed caught a “tangible and real” glimpse of his ancestors’ lives through Poor Law records. The tragic discovery that Brian’s 3 x great grandfather was a pauper and his orphaned children were sent to a workhouse miles from home was sadly not unusual.

In 1834 the Poor Law Amendment Act established the Victorian workhouse system. Huge pioneering buildings were erected to cope with vast numbers of poor within each of the new Poor Law Unions under the watchful eyes of local Boards of Guardians. Prior to this, Poor Law Acts since Elizabethan times had put an emphasis on parish officials, or Overseers of the Poor, to provide for the needy.

Brian Blessed first found out that his ancestors were on the poverty line when shown a copy of a baptism register from 1820 describing the baby’s father, Barnabas Blessed, as a pauper.

Most of us will discover an ancestor in the workhouse on a census return, or birth or death certificate, however there are plenty more records created by the Poor Law authorities that can help you to investigate further...

Life in the workhouse
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