Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Workhouses and the poor of Essex

Photo of Braintree, the Union Workhouse 1923, ref. 74838
Braintree Workhouse, 1923
Reproduced courtesy of Francis Frith.

Looking for your workhouse and pauper ancestors in the archives.

Records relating to the poor in Essex can be divided between pre-1834 and after 1834

Pre 1834

During the medieval period the care of the poor was a matter for the church, but by the early 17th century the poor had become the responsibility of the parish where they lived or originated from. The Parish Vestry was responsible for deciding how to deal with the poor in its parish.

The Parish Vestry consisted of the principal and prominent members of a parish: normally the Lord of the Manor, the Rector or Vicar, landowners and farmers. It met in the church vestry which gave it its name. They would appoint overseer(s) to administer payments to the parish poor or run a parish workhouse. This system of poor relief was paid for by wealthier residents of the parish by payment of a local tax known as a 'Poor Rate'.

Money could be given to the poor who remained in their own homes, this was called out-door relief. At varying times most parishes had a workhouse to which, increasingly, paupers were sent to be clothed and fed, and also to work. It made better financial sense for the parish, and it was thought, stopped abuses of the system.

The records relating to the relief of the parish poor prior to 1834 are extremely varied and not all parish records have survived. To find these records, search at the Essex Record Office's catalogue: SEAX. Search for the parish name and other key words such as vestry minutes, workhouse, poorhouse, out-door relief. Individuals' names and cases sometimes appear in the records.

After 1834

Following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, responsibility for the poor was removed from the individual parish. Groups of parishes were amalgamated into Poor Law Unions and an elected Board of Guardians were responsible for the Union Workhouse. Each parish had at least one representative on the Board. All other parish workhouses were then closed. The Boards were supervised and reported to the Poor Law Commissioners, later called the Poor Law Board, and then the Local Government Board.

Admission into a workhouse became the main way of dealing with the poor. A workhouse was run by a master or governor whose task was to supervise the inmates, cloth and feed them, and set them to work. Some workhouses had additional staff.

The Board of Guardians generated different types of records, particularly minutes of meetings. Not all of them have survived.

The Essex Record Office contains a number of records from most of the Union Workhouses. None at present are searchable by name, so a visit in person to the archive would be required or check whether document images are available on SEAX.

Some Essex parishes were in other Poor Law Counties. You will have to check with the relevant County Record Office to discover their holdings.

Later records include sanitary authorities established in 1872.

The 1841 - 1911 censuses list occupants of a workhouse by name.

This is a list of the Unions and the parishes which formed that Union with any later additions. Also listed is the SEAX reference. Just type this in the 'Document Reference' search box to see the scope and type of records available for that Union.

Billericay Union G/Bi
Union declared 10 October 1835
Basildon, Bowers Gifford, Brentwood, Childerditch, Downham, Dunton Wayletts, East Horndon, Great Burstead (includes Billericay), Hutton, Ingrave, Laindon, Little Burstead, Little Warley, Mountnessing, Nevendon, North Benfleet, Pitsea, Ramsden Bellhouse, Ramsden Crays, Shenfield, South Benfleet, South Weald, Thundersley, Vange, West Horndon, Wickford.

Braintree Union G/Br
Union declared 16 December 1835
Black Notley, Bocking, Bradwell juxta Coggeshall, Braintree, Cressing, Finchingfield, Great Saling, Pattiswick, Panfield, Rayne, Shalford, Stisted, White Notley, Weathersfield.
In 1883 the following parishes were transferred from Witham Union: Great Coggeshall, Fairstead, Faulkbourn, Feering, Hatfield Peverel, Kelvedon, Little Coggeshall, Marks Hall, Rivenhall, Terling, Witham.

Chelmsford Union G/Ch
Union declared 10 August 1835
Boreham, Broomfield, Buttsbury, Chelmsford, Chignall St James, Chignall Smealy, Danbury, East Hanningfield, Fryerning, Great Baddow, Great Leighs, Great Waltham, Good Easter, Ingatestone, Little Baddow, Little Leighs, Little Waltham, Margaretting, Mashbury, Pleshey, Rettendon, Roxwell, Runwell, Sandon, South Hanningfield, Springfield, Stock, West Hanningfield, Widford, Woodham Ferrers, Writtle.

Colchester Union G/Co
Union declared 19 October 1835
Colchester parishes: All Saints, Holy Trinity, St Botolph, St Giles, St James, St Leonard, St Mary at the Walls, St Martin, St Michael Mile-End, St Mary Magdalen, St Nicholas, St Peter, St Runwald. Parishes of Berechurch, Greenstead, Lexden.

Great Dunmow Union G/D
Union declared 25 March 1836
Aythorpe Roding, Bardfield Saling, Barnston, Broxted, Chickney, Felsted, Great Bardfield, Great Canfield, Great Dunmow, Great Easton, Hatfield Broad Oak, High Easter, High Roding, Lindsell, Little Bardfield, Little Canfield, Little Dunmow, Little Easton, Margaret Roding, Stebbing, Takeley, Thaxted, Tilty, White Roding.

Epping Union G/E
Union declared 16 January 1836
Buckhurst Hill (added later), Chigwell, Chigwell Row, Chingford, Epping, Epping Upland (added later), Great Parndon, Harlow, Latton, Little Parndon, Loughton, Magdalen Laver, Matching, Nazeing, Netteswell, North Weald Bassett, Roydon, Rye Hill, Sheering, Theydon Bois, Theydon Garnon.

Halstead Union G/H
Union declared 6 November 1835
Castle Hedingham, Colne Engaine, Earls Colne, Gosfield, Great Maplestead, Great Yeldham, Halstead, Little Maplestead, Little Yeldham, Pebmarsh, Ridgewell, Sible Hedingham, Stambourne, Tilbury-juxta-Clare, Toppesfield, White Colne.

Lexdon and Winstree Union G/L
Union declared 1 February 1836
Abberton, Aldham, Birch, Boxted, Brightlingsea, Chappel, Copford, Dedham, East Donyland, Easthorpe, East Mersea, Fingringhoe, Fordham, Great Horkesley, Great Wigborough, Great Tey, Langenhoe, Langham, Layer-de-la-Hay, Layer Breton, Layer Marney, Little Horkesley, Little Tey, Little Wigborough, Marks Tey, Mount Bures, Peldon, Salcott, Stanway, Virley, Wakes Colne, West Bergholt, West Mersea, Wivenhoe, Wormingford.
In 1883 the following parishes were transferred from Witham Union: Inworth and Messing.

Maldon Union G/M
Union declared 14 December 1835
Althorne, Asheldham, Bradwell-on-Sea, Burnham-on-Crouch, Cold Norton, Creeksea, Dengie, Goldhanger, Great Totham, Hazeleigh, Heybridge, Langford, Latchingdon, Little Totham, Maldon All Saints, Maldon St Marys, Maldon St Peters, Mayland, Mundon, North Fambridge, Purleigh, St Lawrence, Southminster, Steeple, Stow Maries, Tillingham, Tollesbury, Tolleshunt D'Arcy, Tolleshunt Knights, Tolleshunt Major, Woodham Mortimer, Woodham Walter.
In 1883 the following parishes were transferred from Witham Union: Great Braxted, Little Braxted, Ulting, Wickham Bishops.

If you are interested in Maldon Workhouse after 1872 then the Essex Record Office blog post Discover Workhouse Records has an excellant detailed map of the workhouse.

Ongar Union G/On
Union declared 8 April 1836
Abbess Roding (Abbots Roding), Beauchamp Roding, Berners Roding, Blackmore, Bobbingworth, Chipping Ongar, Doddinghurst, Fyfield, Greensted, High Laver, High Ongar, Lambourne, Kelvedon Hatch, Little Laver, Moreton, Navestock, Norton Mandeville, Shelley, Shellow Bowels, Stanford Rivers, Stapleford Abbotts, Stapleford Tawney, Stondon Massey, Theydon Mount, Willingale Doe, Willingale Spain.

Orsett Union G/Or
Union declared 10 October 1835
Aveley, Bulphan, Chadwell St Mary, Corringham, East Tilbury, Fobbing, Grays Thurrock, Horndon-on-the-Hill, Langdon Hills, Little Thurrock, Mucking, North Ockendon, South Ockendon, Orsett, Stanford-le-Hope, Stifford, West Thurrock, West Tilbury.

Rochford Union G/Ro
Union declared 10 October 1835
Ashingdon, Barling, Canewdon, Canvey Island (Added later as a parish, previously shared by parishes in the Benfleet area, Billericay Union), Eastwood, Great Stambridge, Great Wakering, Hadleigh, Hawkwell, Hockley, Leigh, Little Stambridge, Little Wakering, North Shoebury, Paglesham, Prittlewell, Rawreth, Rayleigh, Rochford, Shopland, South Fambridge, South Shoebury (Shoeburyness), Southchurch, Sutton.

Romford Union G/R
Union declared 31 may 1836
Barking, Cranham, Dagenham, Hornchurch, Havering-atte-Bower, Rainham, Romford, Upminster, Great Warley, Wennington.

Saffron Walden Union G/Sw
Union declared 25 March 1836
Arkesden, Ashdon, Chrishall, Clavering, Debden, Elmdon, Great Chesterford, Great Sampford, Hempstead, Langley, Little Chesterford, Little Sampford, Littlebury, Newport, Quendon, Radwinter, Rickling, Saffron Walden, Strethall, Wendens Ambo, Wenden Lofts, Wicken Bonhunt, Widdington, Wimbish.

Tendring Union G/T
Union declared 16 Nov 1835
Alresford, Ardleigh, Beaumont-cum-Moze, Bradfield, Brightlingsea (added later), Dovercourt (added later), Elmstead, Frating, Frinton, Great Bentley, Great Bromley, Great Clacton, Great Holland, Great Oakley, Harwich St Nicholas (added later), Kirby-le-Soken, Lawford, Little Bentley, Little Bromley, Little Clacton, Little Holland, Little Oakley, Manningtree, Mistley, Ramsey, St Osyth, Tendring, Thorpe-le-Soken, Thorrington, Walton on Naze, Weeley, Wix, Wrabness.

Witham Union G/W
Union declared 15 December 1835. Abolished 1883.
Fairstead 2, Faulkbourne 2, Feering 2, Great Braxted 1, Great Coggeshall 2, Hatfield Peverel 2, Inworth 3, Kelvedon 2, Little Braxted 1, Little Coggeshall 2, Marks Hall 2, Messing 3, Rivenhall 2, Terling 2, Ulting 1, Wickham Bishops 1, Witham 2.

1 Transferred to Maldon Union in 1883
2 Transferred to Braintree Union in 1883
3 Transferred to Lexden and Winstree Union in 1883

Essex parishes incorporated in other Counties.

Bishops Stortford Union, Hertfordshire
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
See also The National Archives 19th Century Poor Law Union and Workhouse Records where some Bishops Stortford records are available.
Berden, Birchanger, Elsenham, Farnham, Great Hallingbury, Henham, Little Hallingbury, Manewden, Stansted Mountfitchet, Ugley.

Edmonton Union, Middlesex
London Metropolitan Archives
Waltham Abbey

Linton Union, Cambridgeshire
Cambridge Archives and Local Studies
Bartlow End, Hadstock

Risbridge Union, Suffolk
Suffolk Record Office
Ashen, Birdbrook, Helions Bumpstead, Ovington, Steeple Bumpstead, Sturmer.

Royston Union, Hertfordshire
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Great Chishill, Heydon, Little Chishill.

Sudbury Union, Suffolk
Suffolk Record Office
Alphamstone, Belchamp Otten, Belchamp St Pauls, Belchamp Walter, Borley, Bulmer, Bures Hamlet, Foxearth, Gestingthorpe, Great Henny, Liston, Little Henny, Lamarsh, Middleton, Pentlow, Twinstead, Wickham St Paul.

Further research: visit
or obtain Essex Workhouses by John Drury ISBN-13: 978-0953615414

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