Poor Law Unions

Poor Law Unions

Poor Law Unions came into being following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. They survived until 1930, when their functions were taken over by county and county borough councils and then, in 1948, by the central government. The Act of 1834 replaced individual parishes and townships as poor relief agencies with groups or 'unions' of parishes to provide relief to those unable to support themselves. Unions were governed by boards of guardians elected by the ratepayers.

In 1837, two poor law unions were established in this area, one centred on Doncaster and the other centred upon Thorne, as the two market towns in the district. The unions were obliged to build workhouses to receive applicants for their aid, as no relief was now to be given except in the workhouse. In fact, 'out relief' never entirely ceased, not least because it was cheaper than 'indoor relief' in the workhouse. But the workhouse was intended to act as a deterrent to applicants, and no doubt it did so.

Both the Doncaster and Thorne Unions built workhouses. Doncaster built its workhouse first at Cherry Tree Lane, Hexthorpe, where the site soon acquired as a very noisy neighbour the Great Northern Railway Locomotive Plant Works. In 1897 it built a new workhouse in Springwell Lane, Balby.

In 1930, the Poor Law Act abolished boards of guardians and gave their responsibilities to county and county borough councils. Control of the Doncaster Institution (as workhouses had been called since the early years of the twentieth century) and the granting of 'public assistance' (as payments to the poor were now to be called) in the borough was transferred to Doncaster County Borough Council. In the former Thorne Poor Law Union, the poor relief arrangements were the province of the West Riding County Council.

In 1948, the government 'nationalised' both the institutions and the payment of public assistance. The buildings were mostly transferred to the new National Health Service, and became hospitals. The Doncaster Institution became the Western Hospital, used for maternity and elderly patients, which closed about 1973. Public assistance was replaced by 'National Assistance', the forerunner of present-day Social Security.

Information about workhouses and poor law unions throughout Great Britian and Ireland (including those at Doncaster and Thorne) can be found online at www.workhouses.org.uk. This website also incudes lists of workhouse inmates taken from the 1871 and 1881 census.

Poor Law Union Records

Two poor law unions were established in the area in 1837, one based on Doncaster and one based on Thorne. Virtually all the records of both the Doncaster and Thorne poor law unions are believed to have been destroyed. 

The only significant exceptions are:

Doncaster Poor Law Union : Registers of births and deaths in the workhouse from 1893 and Registers of Religious Creed of residents from 1904
Thorne Poor Law Union: Minutes of the Board 1837-1842 and of the Rating Assessment sub-committee 1898-1927.

Information about the poor law unions (for local history rather than for family history) can be found in the records of the Local Government Board from 1834 to 1896, to be found at the
The National Archives (TNA). 



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