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Identity Statement

Reference code(s): BEBG
Held at: London Metropolitan Archives
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Date(s): 1836-1935
Level of description: Collection
Extent: 40.82 linear metres
Name of creator(s): Bethnal Green Poor Law Union x Bethnal Green 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 Bethnal Green Poor Law Union was formed in 1836 and consisted of only one parish, Saint Matthew. It did not merge with other parishes. The parish had built a workhouse which was operational by 1777, but in 1840 they constructed a new workhouse at Bonners Hall Fields near the Waterloo Road. A second workhouse on Well Street in Hackney was used from 1890, it housed the 'respectable poor' who had demonstrated good behaviour in the Waterloo Road institution. The Waterloo Road workhouse was extended and refurbished in 1908 and the Union stopped using the second institution.The Union also managed the Cambridge Heath Road Infirmary and the Bethnal Green School for the Juvenile Poor in Leytonstone.

Source of information: Peter Higginbotham at The Workhouse website.


Scope and content/abstract:

Records of the Bethnal Green Poor Law Union, 1836-1935, including minutes of meetings of the Board of Guardians and various Committees; orders and correspondence from the Poor Law Board, Local Government Board and the Ministry of Health; settlement examinations; orders of removal to and from other Unions; registers and annual returns of lunatics; registers from the Waterloo Road Workhouse, Well Street Workhouse and Infirmary; registers of children at the Leytonstone Home; case histories for pauper children; financial accounts; staff records and plans of Waterloo House and the chapel at Bethnal Green Hospital (the former Workhouse Infirmary).

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Arranged in 9 sections: Board minutes; Committees; Correspondence; Settlement and Removal; Workhouses and Institutions; Schools and Children; Finance and Statistics; Staff; Plans and Drawings.

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 Bethnal Green Board of Guardians institutions, see LCC.

Publication note:

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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