Archive for June, 2013

As genealogists and historians, many of us have typical sources and records to which we tend to turn. But relying on these can sometimes lead us to erroneous assumptions.

I thought I knew some things about the parish of Bradworthy in Devon, England: The population was mostly rural. Bradworthy and many of its neighboring parishes in North Devon and Cornwall (Bradworthy is on the county border) were hotbeds of non-conformity, with Bible Christian, Wesleyan, and Wesleyan Methodist circuits being especially common. Many people left from Bradworthy for North America in the mid-1800’s, and by “many” I mean well above the typical rate of emigration. In their extremely brief mentions, under the assumption that the average tourist would probably not want to do more than pass through, travel guides in the 1800’s and early 1900’s portrayed it as a quaint, quiet place that was still mostly rural at the time.

I also knew that the rural economy in England in general was decimated in the mid to late 1800’s as millions of people chose to move to cities or leave the country.

All of this added up to a picture that seemed to me to be clear.

And that picture is wrong.

My Twitter friend Kirsty Wilkinson (@GenealogyGirl) recently shared a blog post she had read, Early Civil Registration – registrars at last for Huddersfield, which is about civil registration being delayed in a parish in Yorkshire due to it being one of the regions where the Poor Law changes were widely hated. I have thus far been unable to locate the birth record of a child that other records indicate was born in Bradworthy shortly after civil registration began, and while I know some people chose not to comply with civil registration at first, I thought I would check to see whether I could find any news coverage of responses in Bradworthy to the Poor Law change.

What I found blew my suppositions out of the water. Instead of finding information on any reactions to the initial Poor Law changes, I found that in 1859 Bradworthy petitioned to cease being a part of Bideford Poor Law Union and be moved by the government to Holsworthy Poor Law Union. Initial coverage explained:

. . . a recent decision of the Poor Law Commissioners, to withdraw the Parish of Bradworthy from the Bideford Union and to attach it to the Holsworthy Union. Bradworthy is a rich and lucrative parish, and serves as a counterpoise to the large number of poor parishes of the former Union.

[The North Devon Journal, February 17, 1859 issue, p. 8.]

The Guardians of Bideford Union were so incensed by this that the initial coverage erroneously reported that they had resigned en masse. This coverage was subsequently corrected, with a new explanation:

The statement was made in our last, that the whole of the Guardians of the Bideford Union had resigned, which was not strictly correct, though the course pursued may be regarded as tantamount to it. The history of the case is as follows:–The Poor Law Act provides that at the termination of twenty years from the passing of the Bill (at which time, it was presumed, the debts on Union Workhouses would be liquidated), any parish should have the right to memorialize the Poor Law Commissioners to be transferred to any other Union than that to which it belonged. The parishioners of Bradworthy, finding the distance of their parish from Bideford to entail great inconvenience, memorialized the Poor Law Board for an order transferring Bradworthy to the Holsworthy Union. . . .

[The North Devon Journal, February 25, 1859 issue, p. 5.]

The latter article continues that the government had sent out an inspector to try to determine whether the government should rescind their decision to allow Bradworthy to switch Unions, but the Guardians of Bideford Union had decided to protest the government making an initial decision without consulting them by adjourning “sine die,” even though they knew that the government was sending an inspector to reconsider the decision. Consequently the Guardians of Bradworthy showed up for the inspector, and were later joined by a couple of Guardians from Bideford Union who apparently weren’t against the move. They formed a quorum and re-approved the move in front of the inspector. Now there was no further appeal the anti-move Bideford Union members could make.

I have yet to research anyone who was still living in Bradworthy in 1859, so I had not realized that it had moved registration districts at that time. The latter article notes that Bideford Union was considering compensating for the loss of Bradworthy by trying to add some parishes that were very close to the town of Bideford yet in Barnstaple Poor Law Union. I have not yet followed up to see whether this happened.

In addition to being generally interesting, this all had a direct impact on two of my ancestors. Before the Poor Law change created Poor Law Unions, the parish generally looked after its own as best it could. Cases where people were in need of assistance were generally reviewed by someone who knew the person(s) who needed help from the parish. But after the Poor Law changed, cases were referred to the area Poor Law Union. It was unlikely anyone in need of help would know the person reviewing their case. The Poor Law Union Workhouses were centrally located, usually in the town after which the Union was named, and were expressly as awful as possible under the theory that horrible conditions would serve as a deterrent to needing help. People who did not live in the Union Workhouse were discouraged from receiving aid and a number of Unions came to expressly forbid this.

While Bideford Union Workhouse’s records from this time period unfortunately don’t survive, from what I have found I have pieced together that my female ancestor, Elizabeth/Betsey (Cornish) Bray, appears to have been abandoned by her husband Joseph and left alone with their several children, as she and her youngest children are enumerated in the Bideford Union Workhouse on the 1841 census without Joseph. Abandonment was the most common reason a married mother would be sent to a Union Workhouse. The few records that list Joseph’s occupation list him as a generic “Labourer,” which seems from the coverage to place him at the lowest end of Bradworthy’s class scale.

If Bradworthy was already doing well when the Poor Law changed (which seems likely, but I can’t say for sure at this point), Elizabeth and her children would have probably been well taken care of by the parish under the old Poor Law. But the new Union Workhouse setup made this moot. No matter how well Bradworthy was doing, it was in a Union that it seems was mostly comprised of poor parishes. In a system already intentionally set up to be terrible to endure, Bideford Union Workhouse was likely poorly funded and was consequently probably worse than average. I know from the Poor Law Staff Correspondence digitized on the National Archives site that it was up to each workhouse master to decide their workhouse’s worship policy and that Bideford Union Workhouse’s master was one of the masters who required all inmates to attend Christian services and required that those services be Church of England. On top of all the other indignities, Elizabeth and her youngest children could no longer practice their Bible Christian denomination.

Elizabeth’s older children were literally on their own; those 12 and up were working as servants in others’ homes in 1841. One of them was the young woman from whom I descend. Elizabeth chose to stay in Devon the rest of her life, but the children she’d had before she was sent to the Workhouse seemed to never get over the rift. After my ancestor grew up, she and her husband and children left behind everyone they had known and emigrated to Canada; they waited to emigrate until her husband’s elderly father died but left before Elizabeth did. My ancestor’s brother joined the British Army and left England, and her sisters moved away from Devon.

Elizabeth lived out the end of her life in what seem to have been kinder circumstances. As an elderly woman she was admitted to the Widow’s Almshouse in Bradworthy’s neighboring parish of Hartland, historic small cottages where a group of widows lived in the kind of situation that was common prior to the Poor Law change and was one of the remaining old institutions. Though at least four of Elizabeth’s children were still alive when she died, one of the other widows at the Almshouse reported her death to the registrar.



As many researchers of England are likely already aware, there are a lot of resources out there on researching poor and/or rural ancestors, including numerous books. In addition to these, I recommend anyone interested in the old and new Poor Law and/or the general social history of the rural/village poor in England read chapters of interest in the informative book Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England, 1660–1900 by K. D. M. Snell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

My ancestors were far from alone in emigrating from Southwestern England in the 19th century; GenUKI has compiled a list of resources for those researching emigrants from Devon.

There is a fantastic atlas on Devon and Cornwall that goes from prehistory to modern times – Historical Atlas of South-West England, edited by Roger Kain and William Ravenhill, with cartography by Helen Jones (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1999).

The Bible Christian registers for most of the circuits that covered Bradworthy were amongst the non-conformist records deposited at the National Archives and are now scanned on BMD Registers where you can view pages a la carte.

The Family History Library has microtext of a manuscript on the exodus from Bradworthy, though (rather inexplicably to me) I can no longer locate it in the catalog to link here.

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