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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): BBG
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
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Date(s): 1836-1934
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 103 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Bermondsey Poor Law Union x Saint Olave's Poor Law Union x Bermondsey Board of Guardians
Saint Mary Magdalen Board of Guardians


Administrative/Biographical history:

Poor relief was based on the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601 which obliged parishes to take care of the aged and needy in their area. Parish overseers were empowered to collect a local income tax known as the poor-rate which would be put towards the relief of the poor. This evolved into the rating system, where the amount of poor-rate charged was based on the value of a person's property. Early workhouses were constructed and managed by the parish. However, this process was expensive and various schemes were devised where groups of parishes could act together and pool their resources. As early as 1647 towns were setting up 'Corporations' of parishes. An Act of 1782, promoted by Thomas Gilbert, allowed adjacent parishes to combine into Unions and provide workhouses. These were known as 'Gilbert's Unions' and were managed by a board of Guardians.

Under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the Poor Law Commission was given the power to unite parishes in England and Wales into Poor Law Unions. Each Union was to be administered by a local Board of Guardians. Relief was to be provided through the provision of a workhouse. An amendment to the 1834 Act allowed already existing 'Gilbert's Unions' or Corporations of parishes to remain in existence, although they were encouraged to convert themselves into Poor Law Unions. Although there was some reorganisation of union boundaries, particularly in London, the majority of Unions created under the 1834 Act remained in operation until 1930. In March 1930 a new Local Government Bill abolished the Poor Law Unions and the Board of Guardians. Responsibility for their institutions passed to Public Assistance Committees managed by the county councils - in the metropolis either the London County Council or the Middlesex County Council.

The Saint Olave's Poor Law Union was founded in 1836, consisting of the parishes of Saint Olave's, Saint Thomas and Saint John Horsleydown, in the Southwark - Bermondsey area. In 1836 a separate Board of Guardians for the parish of Saint Mary Magdalen was constituted. In 1869 the Saint Mary Magdalen parish joined the Saint Olave's Union, along with the parish of Saint Mary Rotherhithe. In 1904 the Union was renamed Bermondsey Poor Law Union.

Saint Olave's Workhouse on Parish Street was well established as early as 1729, run by the parish of Saint John Horsleydown. The Union was also responsible for the Bermondsey Workhouse on Tanner Street and the Rotherhithe Workhouse on Lower Road. In 1873 to 1875, a new infirmary was constructed at the west side of Lower Road, opposite the workhouse. An infirmary for the aged was constructed at Ladywell in 1897. The Union provided several institutions for children, including the Shirley Schools cottage homes in Croydon.

Source of information: Peter Higginbotham at The Workhouse website.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Bermondsey Poor Law Union, 1836-1934, including minutes of meetings and reports of the Board of Guardians and various Committees including Visiting Committees; regulations relating to the staff and inmates of institutions; orders of the Board; workhouse dietary tables; orders and correspondence from the Local Government Board and the Ministry of Health; contracts, tenders and specifications for building work and supplies; settlement examinations; orders of removal to and from other Unions; orders for the reception of lunatics; notices of death, discharge or removal of lunatics; medical reports on paupers and lunatics; case papers of persons emigrating to Canada; papers relating to medical arrangements; registers for the Rotherhithe Workhouse, Saint Olave's Workhouse on Parish Street, Bermondsey Workhouse on Tanner Street and Saint Anne's Home; registers of children in receipt of outdoor relief; registers of children at schools or homes; papers relating to aid work during the First World War including registration of refugees; financial accounts; staff records and plans of the Bermondsey Workhouse on Tanner Street, the Rotherhithe Infirmary, Shirley Schools and children's home The Hawthorns; map of the parishes in the Union.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

In 14 sections: Minutes; Regulations; Orders and Correspondence; Contracts; Settlement and relief; Lunatics; Emigration; Medical Relief; Workhouses and institutions; Schools and Children; First World War; Finance; Staff; Plans.

Conditions governing access:

These records are available for public inspection, although records containing personal information are subject to access restrictions under the UK Data Protection Act, 1998.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Copyright: City of London

Finding aids:

Please see online catalogues at:

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Records received with the records of the successor County Council.

Allied Materials

Related material:

For the records of the London County Council, who took over Bermondsey Board of Guardians institutions, see LCC.

Publication note:

Adams, J and Coll, G (1999) The History of Shirley Oaks Children's Home (London: Deptford Forum Publishing). For a detailed history see website 'The Workhouse' (

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
April to June 2009

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