Irish Roots

The Poor Law is still with us


From Britain’s point of view, the 1800 Act of Union was primarily a defensive measure to secure its western flank against the French. But after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the London government found itself in charge of a country of which it was profoundly ignorant. So, with true industrial-age logic, it set about creating official machinery to quantify Ireland and make it governable. Almost all surviving Irish research sources in the first half of the 19th century emerged from this process: the Ordnance Survey, the Valuation Office, the censuses of 1821 and 1831 and much more.

One of these administrative machines, the Poor Law, is still with us. In 1838, 135 Poor Law Unions were created, covering the entire island. Each Union had an urban workhouse at its centre, responsible for providing the most basic short-term relief to the utterly destitute and designed to be self-financing. Property-owners in the Union were taxed to pay for the workhouse and in return could elect representatives to the Union’s Board of Guardians to oversee spending.

From the start, the Unions were geographically a hybrid of health service catchment area and electoral constituency. And, weirdly, that geographic hybrid exists even now.

For elections, the Unions were subdivided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs), the areas used for the 1901 and 1911 censuses: those DEDs are still in use in contemporary elections, especially in rural areas. Then, when universal registration of births, deaths and marriages began in 1864, the public health service took on the job. So the Unions were sub-divided into local registrar’s districts, and the Union was euphemised as a “Superintendent Registrar’s District”.

The Department of Health is still in charge of civil registration today. And after almost 200 years, its Superintendent Registrar’s Districts are still the old Poor Law Unions.

They haven’t gone away, you know.

Peter Higginbotham’s wonderful will tell you more.