Archives of hard lives

Archives of hard lives

Jackie McLean explores the wealth of records held at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, and the insight they give into the lives of the poor

Jackie McLean, novelist and freelance writer

Jackie McLean

novelist and freelance writer


Tracing our family history can be an emotional journey, leaving us with a yearning to know something about the sort of person our ancestor was or the sort of life they led. If your ancestors lived in Glasgow or the West of Scotland between 1851 and 1925, and if they were poor, an incredible source of information exists, in the form of the Poor Law archives held in Glasgow’s Mitchell Library – Europe’s largest reference library.

Glasgow’s Mitchell Library
Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, Europe’s largest reference library and home to many types of Poor Law records

You may think the Poor Law archives are too specific to be relevant to your family history search. However:

  • if you have Scottish ancestry (from any part of Scotland) there is a high chance that at some point in their lives they went to live and work in or around Glasgow;
  • if you have Irish ancestry, there is a strong chance of their having fled to Glasgow during the 1840s and 1850s famines – in fact, the Poor Law archives are an important source of information in Irish ancestry for this reason;
  • Scots who crossed the Atlantic after the Highland Clearances may have returned to Scotland from Canada and the USA, seeking work in Glasgow and the West.

Census records can hint at the likelihood of your ancestors having applied for poor relief. For example:

  • an unmarried woman with a baby
  • occupation listed as unemployed
  • occupations related to cotton mills
  • widowed
  • living in certain parts of the city (for example, people in the east end of Glasgow would almost certainly have been living in poverty).

While poor relief was available in Scotland since the 1500s, it was 1845 before the Poor Law Scotland Act updated the system. It divided Glasgow into four parishes: Barony, City, Govan and Gorbals. Gorbals was absorbed into Govan in 1873.

The Mitchell Library now holds the original applications for poor relief to the parishes of Barony (from 1861), City (from 1851), and Govan (from 1876).


What the records contain
The records contain information falling into three broad parts:

Standard details including the applicant’s name, current residence, age, place of birth, and religious denomination, as well as whether the person is married, single or widowed (if adult) or orphaned (if a child), along with any details of relevant people. Their occupation and earnings (if any) are also given, and whether there have been previous applications for relief. The nature of any disability or illness is recorded, in which case there will be a medical certificate attached to the record. There are also details (where known) about the applicant’s own parents, whether living or deceased.

There is then a report written by the assessor who visited the applicant, and this is where a wealth of information may be gleaned about the sorry state of your ancestor’s life. While the report may stick to factual details, such as the names of illegitimate children, there may also be comments about their character and appearance, according to the assessor (but be prepared – comments could be cutting and brutal!).

Finally, the records detail the outcomes of the application, such as financial assistance (including visits made to the home to deliver money), or details of poor house admission.


Using the archives
The records aren’t online: you have to go and visit the Search Room at the Mitchell Library (or ask a friend who lives nearby, or hire a researcher). Before your visit, it’s handy to note that bags are not allowed into the Search Room, but you can leave them in a locker just outside. You can, however, bring your material in with you.

The archivist will allocate you to a monitor, where you can search the records by keying in your ancestor’s surname. You can enter a forename, too, although this is optional. The search will show all applicants with that name, giving:

  • the surname (for women, their maiden name)
  • their forename
  • any other surname (those in brackets are a woman’s married name)
  • the year of birth
  • their birthplace

It’s useful, therefore, to have your ancestor’s year and place of birth, and also any other surnames they may have used. If you can’t find them by any of the surnames you have, try a search of their spouse instead. Remember to be very flexible with the year of birth!

You can select any of the results to see the year the application was made, as well as the reference number for the original record. One handy tip is to use your ancestor’s year of death as a check – applications made after the known date of death can be ruled out.

Once you decide on the records you’d like to see, give the reference number to the archivist. They will retrieve the records for you, generally within the hour. All this is free of charge, so if you need to, you can check the detail of all the possibilities you find.


Other records
Depending on how your time is being planned, you can ask to have the records available for a visit, say, the next day. If you’re able to wait, there is a cafe and internet access on the ground level of the library; or you might want to browse the other material available in the archives. These include school records and church records, though you’ll have to know which school or church you want to look at – the archivist will show you a map where you can locate likely ones if you’re not sure. Council minutes and trade directories are also held in the Search Room, and these can provide a flavour of what was going on around the areas where your ancestor lived and worked.

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If you have found the records belonging to your ancestor, you can ask for a photocopy of the original. You’re not allowed to do this yourself, as specialised equipment is used for copying archives. Obtaining a copy can take several days, but they can be posted out to you if you’re not able to come back to the library at another time. Copying costs 75p per page (expect anything between 2 – 4 pages on average).

One word of advice: the photocopy can miss some of the detail. Because the records are bound in thick volumes, there can be a broad black line where the spine of the book is, and this can obscure some of the print at the edges of the pages. Therefore, it’s a good idea to take full notes from the original while you’re at the library.

Nothing quite compares with the thrill of seeing original handwritten documents giving details of your ancestor’s life. Visit the Mitchell Library’s useful website for more information.

The photos on these pages were taken by Scottish photographer Thomas Annan (1829-1887). Commissioned by the City of Glasgow Improvements Trust, he documented the slums of Glasgow between 1868 and 1871; he published them in his book The Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow.

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