RepositoryCheshire Record Office
LevelCollection (Fonds)
TitleChester Poor Law Union and Public Assistance Records
DescriptionIn the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the administration of the poor law in Chester was divided between its nine parishes and Chester Corporation, the mayor, recorder and aldermen who were justices of the peace working through both the Assembly and quarter sessions. In 1575, a Corporation workhouse was established outside the Northgate and in 1757, the parishes combined to provide a new workhouse on the Roodee. After the Act of 1762 (CLA/6), control of this workhouse passed to the justices of the peace and seventy four people chosen from the parishes, incorporated as guardians of the poor. Although the poor Law Amendment Act was passed in 1834, Chester did not become part of the national system until after the Poor Law Act, 1868 and the Poor Law Union of Chester was formed in 1869. Parishes from Great Boughton and Hawarden Unions were added in 1870-71. Because the workhouse on the Roodee had become inadequate, a new workhouse was built in Hoole Lane in 1877-78. Chester Union was abolished after the Local Government Act, 1929 which transferred the functions of poor law guardians to county and county borough councils, working through public assistance committees. The poor law was abolished by the National Assistance Act, 1948. There are two collections of records. One includes creed registers; admissions and discharge books; miscellaneous papers relating inter alia to the raising of loans for building children's homes (for example, at Wrexham Road); and plans of the workhouse and children's homes. Because of the difficulties of separating them, union and public assistance committee records have been kept together. The second collection, deposited in 1974, consists mainly of valuation lists for townships in the former rural areas.

Apart from occasional references in the records of the Corporation, no separate records, except nos. 34 and 35 of this list, have been found of the Chester Guardians of the Poor established in 1762. In addition, very few records of the Chester Poor Law Union and Public Assistance institutions have survived, and most of them were probably destroyed in 1942, as an entry in the Master's Journal on 9 May 1942 records that 'a large quantity of obsolete books and records' were sent for salvage at that time. Most of the surviving records were found at Sealand House in 1959. The records of the City Treasurer's Department contain the following records kept by that department relating to public assistance,: a general ledger, 1930-1933 and a receipts cash book, 1930-1933.
Because many of the records of the Union were similar to those required by the succeeding administration, they continued to be used after 1930, and even, in a few instances, after 1948. For this reason, the surviving records relating to the Poor Law Union and Public Assistance have been combined in this list.
Extent33 volumes., 49 plans,
LocationPlease note that parts of this collection are held offsite. Please contact Cheshire Archives and Local Studies in advance of your visit if you wish to view these records.
Access ConditionsAccess to records containing personal information is subject to the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act 2018.
Administrative HistoryIn Chester, as in many other cities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the administration of the poor law was divided between the parishes and the Corporation, certain members of which as justices of the peace were responsible for the administration of the poor law within the city. In the main the legal control of the justices was exercised through the constables of the twelve wards of the city and the presentments made by the constables at Quarter Sessions show the efforts made to control the settlement of outsiders likely to become a burden to the citizens.

Chester is also typical of many boroughs in that much of the administrative work of the justices was done through the Assembly, and at an Assembly held on 14 March 1571/2 a survey was ordered to be made in each parish to ascertain the yield of the poor rate and differentiate the idle from the impotent poor. This Assembly also ordered that a special rate should be levied to erect a workhouse and in 1575 a building just outside the Northgate near the quarry in the Gorse Stacks was converted for this purpose. For more information on the poor and the poor law in Chester at this time, see E.J. Utting, The working of the poor law in Chester in Tudor times, a thesis for the degree of B. Phil. in Local History, presented to Liverpool University, 1969.

However, the parish remained the basic unit of poor law administration, and the Assembly minutes on 2 Oct. 1691 contain a request from the churchwardens of St. Olave's parish for the lease of land on which they wished to build 'conveniencys' in order to set the poor to work. An Act of 9 George I, cap. 7, 1722-3 permitted churchwardens and overseers of the poor to provide parish workhouses for the lodging-keeping and employment of poor persons, and some of these parish workhouses were opened in Chester, although the exact number is not known. A workhouse in Handbridge belonging to St. Mary's parish is known to have been in existence by 1730, in this same year a poor house was established in St. John's parish, and a Cathedral workhouse was opened in 1751 modelled on an existing workhouse in St. Oswald's parish, see R.V.H. Burne, Chester Cathedral, 1958, pp. 213-6 and his article 'The treatment of the poor in the eighteenth century in Chester, C.A.S. Journal,vol. 52, 1965, pp. 44-5.

The Act of 1722-3 also permitted the voluntary union of parishes for the purpose of providing a workhouse, and in Chester by a deed dated 11 Dec. 1757, the nine Chester parishes combined for this purpose. This new workhouse was built by the Corporation on waste ground belonging to them on the N.W. side of the Roodee. However, following a private Act entitled, An Act for better regulating the poor; maintaining a nightly watch... within the city of Chester, 2 George III, 1762, the control of this workhouse passed to the mayor, recorder and aldermen who were justices of the peace and seventy-four other guardians chosen from the nine Chester parishes who were incorporated as Guardians of the Poor for the city with power to levy a rate in each parish for the maintenance of the dame. Under the terms of this Act, the Guardians leased the workhouse, described as 'the said house with the inner courtyard', from the Corporation for the annual rent of £90. This workhouse building is shown on HUNTER's map of Chester in 1789. According to J. Hemingway, History of the city of Chester, 1831, vol. 2, p. 193, an asylum for pauper lunatics was added in 1818, a school for pauper children in 1823, and these additions are shown on John Wood's map of Chester, 1833.

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which empowered new Poor Law Commissioners in England and Wales to unite groups of parishes into poor law unions for the administration of poor relief, did not immediately affect Chester which already had its own Board of Guardians incorporated by the private Act of 1762. In 1847 the Poor Law Commissioners were replaced by the Poor Law Board and this in turn was replaced by the Local Government Board in 1871. Meanwhile, according to S. and B. Webb, English Poor Law Policy, Part II, vol. 1., 1929, p. 26n., quoting the Fourteenth Report of the Poor Law Board, Chester agreed to join the national system of unions in 1861. However, it was not until 1869, under the Poor Law Act of 1868, which completed the national system of unions, that the Poor Law Union of Chester was formed by an order of the Poor Law Board dated 16 Sept. 1869.

This order united the nine parishes of Chester to form the Chester Poor Law Union, and in 1870 and 1871 the townships of the Abbey Precincts, Great Boughton and Spittle Boughton were added as well as certain parishes from the Great Boughton (Tarwin) and Hawarden Unions. Under the Chester Improvement Act of 1884, Section 11, the civil parish of Chester was created, by which the area within the city, for all other than ecclesiastical purposes, became one parish, and the same Act defined how the guardians should be elected from each ward. See CIVIL PARISH OF CHESTER TRP.

Meanwhile the workhouse erected by the Corporation near the Roodee in 1757 proved to be increasingly inadequate, and, after the formation of the Chester Union in 1869, a new union workhouse was built in Hoole Lane in 1877-8. In the Post Office Directory of Cheshire, 1878, this building is described as consisting of five large blocks of buildings of red brick, then unfinished, but designed to hold 500 persons. It is unfortunate that so many records of the Chester Union, including the minutes, have been destroyed, but from what survives and from other sources, it is known that by 1892 this workhouse in Hoole Lane consisted of a workhouse, hospital and an extra-parochial chapel dedicted to St. James the Less consecrated in 1880. In the early 1900s a central children's home was erected on the Wrexham Road, as well as smaller children's homes in Dodleston, Great Saughall and Upton, and in 1911 the Local Government Board directed that normally children between the age of three and sixteen should not be kept in workhouses. About this time too, St. Martin's House in St. Martins in the Fields became the headquarters building for the Union and other non-poor law services of the Union, such as the registration of births, marriages and deaths.

The Poor Law Unions were abolished by the Local Government Act of 1929, which transferred the functions of the guardians to the County and County Borough Councils working through new Public Assistance Committees. The appointed day was 1 April 1930, and from this date the responsibility for the relief of the poor and other services performed by the guardians within the city was exercised by the Public Assistance Committee of the Corporation. The institutions transferred to the Corporation included the union workhouse, hospital and chapel in Hoole Lane, the headquarters building at St. Martin's House and the children's home on the Wrexham Road. The other childrens' homes outside the city at Dodleston, Little Saughall and Upton were transferred to the County Council. The new Public Assistance Committee of the Corporation was also responsible for the operation of a means test for the poor until 1935, when, under the Unemployment Act of 1934, the National Assistance Board was established for the distribution of unemployment benefit.

When the workhouse premises in Hoole Lane were transferred to the Corporation, a clear distinction was made between the workhouse buildings and the hospital, which were administered separately, and referred to respectively as St. James's House and St. James's Hospital. However, the hospital gradually came to be called the City Hospital and from the early 1930s the minutes of the City Public Health Committee record the negotiations by which it was planned to appropriate this hospital for the general use of the city under the Public Health Acts of 1875 and 1925. Under the Local Government Act of 1933, Section 163, this appropriation finally took place on 1 Jan. 1937, when the administration of the hospital was transferred from the Public Assistance Committee to the Public Health Committee, and the hospital remained under their control until 5 July 1948, the appointed day under the National Health Service Act of 1946, when it was transferred to the Hospital Management Committee of the Regional Hospital Board.

In 1948 the National Assistance Act abolished the poor law, and in Chester the re-organization of hospital and public assistance services was accomplished by the closure of the city Isolation Hospital in Sealand Road on 31 March 1947 and the transfer by the Public Health Committee of this hospital to the Public Assistance Committee on 1 July 1947 in exchange for the public assistance institution, St. James's House, at Hoole. This meant that the City Hospital comprised the whole of the former workhouse buildings at Hoole when these were transferred to the Regional Hospital Board in 1948. The inmates of St. James's House at Hoole were transferred to the former Isolation Hospital, henceforth known as Sealand House, in the summer of 1948, after which it was run by the Welfare Committee appointed by the Corporation in June 1948 under the 1948 National Assistance Act. The children's home on the Wrexham Road became the responsibility of the Children's Committee, appointed by the Corporation in March 1947, upon the recommendation of a Home Office Report on the care of children, which formed the basis of the Children's Act of 1948. It continued to be used as a Corporation children's home until 1958, and the property was sold in 1959.

In this way, since the National Assistance Act of 1948 the former poor law system has been replaced by the services developed by the Welfare and Children's Committees, now the Social Services Committee, of the Corporation, together with the services provided by the National Assistance Board, now the Department of Health and Social Security.
Related MaterialFor records relating to inmates see also Chester City Hospital (HC). See also Chester Poor Law Union (RGC) and Chester City Welfare Department (DWE)
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