Poor Relief records

Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives hold records relating to the relief of the poor throughout the North East. There are minutes for most parishes in the historic counties of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire (excluding parishes now in Moray) and Kincardineshire, and we also hold applications for relief, inspectors' records, and registers of guardians for many parishes. These records are held at our Old Aberdeen House office.

Poor relief records for the Moray Council area, including areas of historic Banffshire, are held by the Moray Council Heritage Centre

Most of the records relating to the poor law for Aberdeen City have not survived, having been destroyed during the Second World War: see below for a summary of what is held. 

The archive holds some records for Peterhead poorhouse (reference PD2/PH). Records for Oldmill (Aberdeen), Buchan Combination (Maud), and Kincardineshire Combination (Stonehaven) poorhouses are held at NHS Grampian Archives.

Access to Poor Law records which are less than 100 years old may be restricted under the Data Protection Act. Please contact us for further information. Remember that although the information you are looking for could be over 100 years old, it may be in a document or volume with newer information.

What Poor Law records we hold

A list of the parishes for which we hold records of the poor for can be found below. 

A list of the individual records for each parish can then be found on our Online Catalogue.

Background to our poor law records

Before 1845 relief of the poor was undertaken by the parish kirk session. In 1845 the Poor Law (Scotland) Act established Parochial Boards throughout the country, which were replaced by Parish Councils in 1895. The duties of the Parish Councils were in turn transferred to town or district councils after the 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act.

The poor laws were revoked in 1948 when the National Insurance and National Assistance Acts were passed, creating the post-war welfare state which was funded by National Insurance and administered by the National Assistance Board in conjunction with local authorities.

Most of our poor law documents were created by the parochial boards and parish councils and so date between 1845 and 1930, but there are later public assistance records for some areas of Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire and Banffshire. 

Finding people in poor law records

We have indexes for the General Registers of the Poor, Registers of Applications for Poor Relief, and Children's Separate Registers. These indexes are held at our Old Aberdeen House office and were created by the Aberdeen and North East Scotland Family History Society who hold copies of the indexes at their King Street research centre. The indexes list the names of people who appear in the registers listed above, but not necessarily everyone in receipt of poor relief in the parish.

Parochial Boards were required to provide poor relief for the people within their parish. A board would be liable for the upkeep of a disabled pauper if that person had been born in the parish or had settlement there by means of residence or marriage.

If someone applying for relief to the board had not been a resident for long enough (5-7 years), the board would apply to the parish they believed liable for reimbursement of any relief granted.

Where this has happened, the person may not appear in the general register or record of applications for the parish where they live, but there may be an entry in the minutes showing the parochial board's claim to another parish for reimbursement.

For example, if someone was born in Premnay but moved to Cluny and became disabled four years later, Cluny might grant relief but claim reimbursement from Premnay. The person asking for poor relief might appear in the Cluny minutes but not the Cluny Register of Application for Poor Relief or General Register of the Poor, and there could also be entries in the Premnay records.

If you know that someone was resident in a parish and you are expecting to find them in the parochial board records for that parish (from information on a death certificate or in a census record, for example) but can't find them in the indexes, it can be worth checking the minutes to see if another parish may have been liable for their upkeep.

Understanding poor law records

Before 1921 there was no relief for people who were unemployed - the Poor Law Emergency Powers (Scotland) Act 1921 was introduced as a result of the depression following World War One and allowed relief to be granted to people who were considered paupers but were not disabled.

Records before 1921 will show reasons for disablement that can sometimes seem unusual. Disablement because of children or pregnancy sometimes appears where widows claim relief, for example. It can be useful to bear in mind that the Inspector of the Poor and the parochial board or parish council could not legally grant relief unless some form of disablement could be shown to apply.

Doctors were expensive, so people may have needed to apply for relief just to be able to get medical assistance. When the 1872 Education Act was introduced all children were required to receive an education, but schools charged for attendance. Parochial board records may show a sum to allow children to pay school fees.

Relief could be indoor or outdoor. Outdoor relief involved people staying in their homes, whereas indoor relief meant them being sent to the local poorhouse or parish home. As there was no relief in Scotland prior to 1921 for the able-bodied poor, there was no system of workhouses as was found in England.

Parishes sometimes combined together for the funding and administration of a poorhouse, such as Buchan Combination Poorhouse in Maud or the Kincardineshire Combination at Dunnottar (Stonehaven). The only poorhouse for which we hold records is the one at Peterhead.

Unfamiliar terms can be used in the records, and sometimes words are used in different ways to the way we use them now. Most of the poor law records are handwritten, with varying degrees of neatness. If you have any trouble understanding anything in the records, whether you're in the search room or have requested copies, just ask a member of staff.

What information do the records contain?

More information about the different types of poor law records we hold is given below. Not every type of record will be available for every parish, and there is a separate list of the material available for Aberdeen City near the bottom.

Parochial Board/Parish Council Minute Books

These deal with the administration of the system of poor relief and matters relating to it. The information tends to be of a more general nature but can mention specific cases and it may be worthwhile looking through these if little information is found in other records.

Matters covered range from levying the assessment on the land and property owners, health concerns, diets, etc.

The content differed from parish to parish, and some rural parish minutes contain a lot of information, such as residence of the applicant and their living conditions, reason for application, reasons for acceptance or rejection of an application, members of the applicant's family and their earnings, and comments by the Inspector of the Poor. Yet some minutes contain little information on applicants, sometimes only their name and the decision made regarding them.

If there are no other records for a parish, it can be worth checking the minutes, but bear in mind that they are rarely indexed. They are most useful where you already have a date, such as when someone died.

Records of Applications

In this series of documents you can find records of the original applications made and their reasons for acceptance or rejection.

The information they contain includes:

  • the hour and date of the application
  • the applicant's name, residence and country of birth
  • the date of the Inspector's visit to their home
  • their condition, age, occupation and average weekly earnings
  • whether the applicant was wholly or partially disabled
  • the names and ages of any dependants they may have
  • other information pertinent to the claim
  • number of previous applications
  • results of the application
  • grounds for refusal
  • number in the General Register of the Poor (if accepted)

General Registers of the Poor

These were the poor relief registers maintained by individual parishes. In 1865 the Board of Supervision introduced new General Registers of Poor and Children's Separate Registers. They contain a wealth of information on individual applicants including names, place of residence, disability, family members, trade/occupation, and general comments on their relief and living conditions and any changes in circumstance.

Sometimes information in them may contradict information in other records. This can be because the applicant was ill or elderly and may only have given vague information to the Inspector of the Poor. Some applicants also give false information to qualify for relief, or a clerical error may result in a misspelled name, or someone being located in the wrong parish or county.

Children's Separate Registers

Children's Separate Registers were introduced in 1865 by the Board of Supervision and were designed to record the applications for relief of children who were receiving relief from the parish or combination, and who were either an orphan or deserted by their parents, or who may have been ordered to be separated from their parents and placed elsewhere, or with only one parent.

They contain a great deal of information including:

  • reference to the relevant General Register Folio
  • age, condition, health, and any ailments
  • reason they have been separated from their parent(s)
  • name and residence of parents
  • details of who they were boarded out to
  • name of the school they attended
  • whether they were apprenticed or a servant

Register of Guardians

The Register of Guardians was required to be kept under the Children act of 1908.

It contains information on families and guardians who were to be in charge of children who were either separated from their parents or orphaned.

They contain information including:

  • the name of the person receiving the child and where they live
  • the name, date and place of birth, sex, date received, date of the notice given to the parish council for the child
  • the name, address and the terms agreed upon of the person from whom the child was received
  • occupation of the guardian
  • the number of rooms in the dwelling house of the guardian, and the number of people living there
  • the number of children under the ages of 7 that the parish council have authorised to be retained there
  • and any details of the Inspector's Visits, Reports and findings

Assessment Rolls

Assessment Rolls were kept by the Parochial Boards and Parish Councils to enable the levying of the poor relief among the landowners and property owners of the parish.

They provide a great deal of information on the social standing of the population, giving such details as:

  • the name and address of the land/property owner
  • the amount of rent they are due yearly for their land/property
  • how much they have been assessed at
  • and how much was paid to the collector

They also include an abstract of the money paid by tenants and owners, and proprietors

Public Assistance Committee Minutes

Public Assistance departments in the County Councils took over the administration of the Poor Law from Parochial Councils in 1929/30 and continued until they in turn were abolished by the National Insurance Act of 1948. Please note that access to these records is restricted under the Data Protection Act.

The minutes include information on:

  • the name, age, marital status, address, disability and allowance granted to applicants
  • unemployment relief
  • boots and clothing allowances
  • casual relief
  • repairs to churchyards
  • changes on the relief rolls
  • appeals for relief

Related information and links

Kirk Session records

Relief of the poor was administered by the kirk sessions until 1845.It can be worth checking the heritors' and kirk session records for mentions of payments to paupers up until around 1885, due to the variety of ways in which parochial boards operated locally.

Where parishes did not impose a poor law rate (i.e. a local tax for the relief of the poor), the parochial board was comprised of the heritors and kirk session. Where a poor law rate was charged in a parish, there would be some elected members on the board. The number of parishes assessed for a poor rate increased gradually after 1845, until by 1862 this rate was legally assessed in most parishes.

Poor law records for many of the parishes covered in our holdings start after 1845, so you may wish to check kirk session records if you find that the early years after 1845 are not covered in the parish you are searching.

More information on kirk session records, along with other denominations for which we hold records can be found on our Church Records page.

In addition, you can now access kirk session records for the whole of Scotland from both our searchrooms. Following a collaborative project between the National Records of Scotland and the Church of Scotland, digital images of kirk session records can now be viewed online.

Other sources

Poorhouse Locations has information about the running of poorhouses, and pictures of some of the poorhouses and alms houses in the North East.

The Scottish Archive Network has a useful set of guides in their Knowledge Base available on their Research Tools page. There are links to guides on poor relief in the 'drop down' boxes for records and subjects.

Although the National Records of Scotland have only a very limited number of records relating to the poor, their Guide to Records of the Poor is still interesting and may be useful if you are searching for people in any of the areas covered by their holdings.

Contact Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives

Contact us


Would you like to give feedback about the website?