Records of Board of Guardians

Repository: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

Identity Statement

TitleRecords of Board of Guardians
Archive ReferenceGB 0255 PRONI/BG
Web Link to this Entry
Creation Dates1839-1951
Extent Mediumc7,000 volumes + c7,000 documents


Creator(s): Health and Local Government, Ministry of

  • Administrative History ↴

    The English system of Indoor Relief for the Destitute Poor was introduced into Ireland by the Poor Law Act of 1838. Apart from some minor modifications, the new legislation mirrored that of its English counterpart, four years earlier. Ireland was divided into 137 'Unions' (civil parishes united to form a Poor Law administrative area), 27 of which were in what is now Northern Ireland. In each Union a 'Board of Guardians' was constituted to levy a compulsory rate to finance the administration of poor relief. With regard to the granting of relief this was to be at the discretion of the guardians and consequently no person, however destitute, could be held to have a statutory right to relief. As for the implementation of the Act, the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales had overall control. Inspired by fears of a population explosion of the destitute, the government was determined to make relief as unattractive as possible lest the poor became dependent on hand-outs and bred recklessly. Thus, relief could only be given within a workhouse: conditions there were to be 'less eligible', that is less attractive, than the worst prevailing outside; inmates had to work; children were separated from their parents and husbands and wives could not share the same quarters. The buildings were hardly finished when the island was swept by potato blight engulfing Ireland between 1845 and 1852. Over one million people died of starvation, fever and dysentery, including 20% of those who emigrated. About 200,000 of the ill, hungry and destitute were accepted into the workhouses-although those who possessed more than a quarter acre of land were refused entry. Since the workhouses had been designed to cope with only about half that number, the conditions in them were appalling and disease spread rapidly. Moreover, since relief was to be financed almost totally out of the Irish poor law rates-although, as with earlier schemes, the Treasury provided some help-many Poor Law Unions were soon bankrupt. Latterly, owing to the obvious inability of the workhouses themselves to cope with the demands made upon them, a system of 'outdoor relief ' was introduced, and in this way about 800,000 victims of the Famine were given relief in their own homes. Although the level of outdoor relief was somewhat unevenly spread, it gradually became more accepted later in the nineteenth century and the workhouses increasingly became the last refuges of orphans, the elderly, families of men who were imprisoned, unmarried pregnant girls and other destitute persons. For all its shortcomings, however, the Poor Law did introduce representative institutions into the Irish countryside. Until 1898, counties had been governed by Grand Juries made up of local landlords and property owners. From the outset, the Boards of Guardians were elected by the ratepayers and an opportunity was given to people of comparatively humble origin to participate in public life.
  • Archival History ↴

    Official Transfer
  • Immediate Source Acquisition ↴

    Official Transfer

Content & Structure

  • Scope & Content: Health and Local Government, Ministry of ↴

    The collection consists of the records of the 27 Unions in the six counties of what is now Northern Ireland. To a certain degree, these records differ in nature of content and scope from those workhouse records of the other 26 counties, e.g. it should be remembered that much of Ulster was demographically different from the rest of Ireland due to the ‘plantation’ by mainly Scottish Presbyterians in the early seventeenth century. Also, possibly because of its geographical proximity to the increasingly industrialised north of England, industries found a footing there and certain urban areas developed more rapidly than in the rest of Ireland. Consequently, Ulster was by no means the most poverty-stricken area in times of hardship such as during the Famine and this is reflected in the records. Furthermore, the shadow of the workhouse remained longer in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the island where the ‘odious, degrading and foreign Poor Law System’ was formally abolished by the Government of the Irish Free State in 1925 and replaced by county boards of health and public assistance, empowered to grant outdoor relief to all needy persons. Indeed, it disappeared in Northern Ireland only in 1948-9 with the introduction of the National Health Service and it is estimated that as late as the year 1937-8, a quarter of all children under the age of one year died in a workhouse.
    The records of the former 27 Boards of Guardians relate to the Poor Law Unions of: Antrim, Armagh, Ballycastle, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Banbridge, Belfast, Castlederg, Clogher, Coleraine, Cookstown, Downpatrick, Dungannon, Enniskillen, Irvinestown (Lowtherstown), Kilkeel, Larne, Limavady, Lisburn, Lisnaskea, Londonderry, Lurgan, Magherafelt, Newry, Newtownards, Omagh and Strabane (there was another workhouse in Gortin, Co. Tyrone, which was in the area of the Omagh Union and united with it in 1870). They comprise c.7,000 volumes and c.7,000 documents dating from 1839 to 1951 and occupy the space of no less than c.1,200 linear metres of records.
    The collection deals not only with the administration of the workhouses and the relief of the poor, but also with the problem of emigration and many aspects of local government. The archive also contains outdoor relief admission and discharge books, lists, registers, abstracts and classified returns. These comprise an important record of the poor, given that at the height of the Famine in February 1848, an estimated 1,433,042 persons, from all categories of pauper, were in receipt of outdoor relief throughout Ireland. The records also relate information of a day asylum being established in Belfast in early 1847 and which was soon admitting on average 900 persons per day, an estimated two-thirds of whom were described as ‘strangers’ who came from outside Belfast. Other constituents of the archive for many of the Unions include returns of births and deaths, correspondence, various committee minute books (e.g. Sanitary Committee, Dispensary Committee, Boarding-out Committee), contracts and tenders, financial records, report books of visiting Committees and the Masters’ journals and return books.

  • Appraisal Destruction ↴

    Permanent Retention
  • Arrangement ↴

    The collection is arranged as follows:
    A/ Minute Books
    B/ Correspondence
    C/ Accounts
    D/ Statistics
    E/ Outdoor Relief
    F/ Workhouse: Administration
    G/ Workhouse: Inmates (indoor registers including indexes)
    H/ Workhouse Infirmary
    I/ Boarding Out Registers
    J/ Dispensary
    K/ Returns of Births and Deaths
    L/ Vaccination
    M/ Contagious Diseases Act
    N/ Assessment
    O/ Miscellaneous
    P/ Emergency Hospital Scheme (1939-1945)
    Q/ Annual Reports of the Poor Commisssioners

Conditions of Access & Use

Access Conditions The collection can be consulted in the reading room in PRONI in accordance with PRONI's rules and regulations.
Creation Dates1839-1951
Extent Mediumc7,000 volumes + c7,000 documents
Material Language ScriptEnglish
Finding Aids A full descriptive list is available to search online at: Archive Web Link →

Allied Materials

Copies InformationSome of the Board of Guardians material has been copied onto microfilm MIC/15A

Descriptive Control Area

Archivist NoteIAR Archivist
Rules/ConventionsISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description. 2nd ed. Ottawa: International Council on Archives, 2000. National Council on Archives: Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names. Chippenham: National Council on Archives, 1997. UK Archival Thesaurus (UKAT)
Date of Descriptions41699