Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Was your ancestor born in a workhouse?

I recently got the following request, via the Ancestry message system, about a birth certificate which said: 
Well I got Charles' birth Certificate, and to my dismay the father is left blank, but his mother is listed as an Emily Tyers. I was wondering if I could send you a copy via email and you could possibly help be make out one of the words on it... Twice under Emily it list Union "Norh/worh?" House, Watford. And that she was a servant. Do you have any idea?
Watford Union Workhouse in 1896
I replied :

It always helps if you know something about the social conditions at the time - and no-one at the time would have had any difficulty with the word you are struggling with. It was the dreaded Union Workhouse. The rich grumbled about the expense and the poor were terified that they would end up there. If you want to know more about the workhouse system read Charles Dicken's book Oliver Twist.
By the time your Charles Tyers was born in 1895 they were beginning to get a bit better - the children who where the responsibility of the Union were more likely to be fostered out and also sent to a proper school - rather than being taught in the Workhouse itself. 50 years later the workhouses were done away with - and as most of the residents were people who were too ill to look after themselves (often through old age) they became hospitals - and the Watford NHS Hospital is on the workhouse site, and the last time I was there some of the workhouse buildings were still standing. However there are major development plans and I haven't been there for at least 5 years.
The Union Workhouse in Vicarage Road, Watford
Emily Tyers had probably been a domestic servant living in a private house away from home, and when she became too pregnant to work found herself destitute - and ended up having the child in the Workhouse. As soon as she was fit to work she would have had to find a new job, and rearing the child would have been the responsibility of the Union.
The chances of ever finding out who the father was is remote - but that is just a fact of family history - as there are similar cases in almost every family tree.
If you visit my web site at and use the search faclilty for the words WATFORD and WORKHOUSE you will find many references including one to the New Year party held in 1893. You will also find much more about Watford.
Relevant pages on the main site are on Watford Union, The New Year Party at the Union, and a general page on The Workhouse with an important link. There are many other pages where books on Watford refer to the workhouse, or where answers involve people who had connections with the workhouse.

1 comment:

  1. I assume this is about the Charles [blank] who was sent to Canada in 1907. Although Emily can be found as a domestic servant at Watford in 1901, she is otherwise difficult to trace. If as I suspect your correspondent is Canadian and cannot easily visit HALS she might try writing to them. They are likely to have the Admission and Discharge Books for Watford Union Workhouse and those may give some information (I do agree Emily probably was there for as short a time as possible around the birth; there is a similar instance in my own family). Additionally, the Guardians would have made every effort to establish Charles's paternity as they could make him support the child rather than it becoming dependent on the parish. Anthony


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