The Milton Abbas Local History Group have transcribed 60 000 records of all their Overseers of the Poor Account books from 1771 to 1836, and we are finding they are a fantastic resource for researching local and family history. They are unique records in which the poor are detailed with their names, and what things cost. Every aspect of life is covered – illness, doctors, medicines, treatments, nursing care, moving, funerals, lying in, travelling, old age, clothing, shoes, bedding, chimney sweeping, house rent, who is paying rates and how much. This information gives an insight into the social history of each parish. As just one example, this entry occurs in the Overseers accounts for Milton Abbas in April 1800 “Mr White for Extra Gristing £7 8s 6d”. This led me to explore the events around this time concerning the poor, and write an article and a presentation on the subject. It was possible to chart the price of grains, the amount spent by the Overseers, the amount received by each of the farmers and the amount of rates paid. This information, together with the mortality and birth rates for just this parish show just how tough the years around 1800 were, and how the tenant farmers, miller and overseers handled the situation. Another example is how smallpox was dealt with by the parish – but that is for another blog.
Also for family historians the Overseers of the Poor account books can tell the story of their individual ancestors in need, what illnesses they had, when they suffered from poverty, when they had enough to live on. This information with other documents such as bastardy records, removal records allows a full picture of an ancestor’s life to be told.
I am surprised that family historians are not using their parish records of the Overseers of the Poor moor. A trawl through magazines such as Who Do You Think You Are? and Your Family Tree produces nothing relevant. The great thing about these records is that they are available for many parishes before the censuses and the Union Workhouses, so if you have traced your family back before 1841 they are an essential resource, why not check out the Dorset History Centre catalogue to see if your parish Overseers Accounts are there? Also search this website to our progress on the Overseers of the Poor.