Old Poor Law

A guide to the sources available for applications for poor relief before 1845

​What do I need to know before I start?

Try to find out:

  • name
  • where they lived (area or parish)
  • approximate period of any application


What records can I find in the Mitchell: Glasgow City Archives?

The Scottish Parliament passed various laws relating to the relief of poverty during the 15th and 16th centuries. These laws shaped poor relief in Scotland and the principles established during this early period remained part of the poor relief scheme established under the Poor Law (Scotland) Act, 1845.


From the earliest period, those eligible for poor relief were:

  • those unable to support themselves, either through age or incapacity
  • the ‘sturdy beggar’ or the able-bodied poor were not generally entitled to support


After the Reformation in 1560 until 1845, the responsibility for the poor fell on the (Church of Scotland) parish, jointly through the heritors (local landowners) and the kirk sessions. Each parish was responsible for their own poor, i.e. those who had settlement there, either through birth, marriage or length of residence.


In Glasgow the situation was more complicated. There were a number of parishes in Glasgow and they organised themselves into as the ‘General Session’. The General Session turned to the town for help and in 1733 the Town Council built the Town’s Hospital which opened in 1733. This was partly a workhouse, partly a hospital, partly an old folks’ home and partly an orphanage. Eventually the Town’s Hospital was forced to give ‘outdoor relief’.


By the end of the 18th century a system had been established in Glasgow; poor people applied first of all to their church elder who assessed their need. If it was a small allowance, it was paid out of local kirk session funds. If the needs were larger, they would have to apply to the Town’s Hospital, where they were either given indoor or outdoor relief.


You can access the following Church of Scotland records in the City Archives:

  • original records for the kirk sessions from the 16th to 20th century within Glasgow Presbytery
  • digitised images of kirk sessions from across Scotland from 16th to 20th century
  • minutes of the General Session, 1782-1880s


A small number of kirk sessions may record weekly or monthly lists of paupers. In the majority of cases, you will need to search through minutes and accounts to find a relevant entry.


In addition there are a small number of minutes of the Town’s Hospital, of which the volume for 1741-1743, lists applicants for poor relief.


The system was under great pressure in the 19th century with periodic trade depressions. Glasgow police surveyed the destitute during the 1841 downturn and this survey is available in the City Archives.


What records can I see online?

What records can I see elsewhere?

The National Records of Scotland holds the heritors' records for all of Scotland as well as the original kirk session records for many of Scotland's parishes. Access to the latter will normally be to the digitised images.


What other resources will help me find information?


Glasgow City Archives


0141 287 2910

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