Workhouses & Poor Law Unions

Poor Law Unions

Were set up following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. By this Act, parishes were no longer responsible for maintaining their own poor people. Parishes and townships were instead formed into groups or unions, each of which was administered by a Board of Guardians with a union workhouse to accommodate those who could not provide for themselves. Our records are between 1838 to 1930.

In the later 19th century accommodation for the elderly, infirm, sick and lunatic was provided in addition to the separate male and female blocks. The system continued until the Local Government Act of 1929 came into effect on 1 April 1930, putting the responsibility for care onto Public Assistance committees of local authorities.

Sheffield places were included in 3 Poor Law Unions (which in some cases covered a wider area):

Sheffield Union

Comprised Attercliffe cum Darnall, Brightside Bierlow, Bradfield Urban, Ecclesall, Ecclesfield Urban, Handsworth and Sheffield. The workhouse was built in 1881 at Fir Vale, and it later became the site of the Northern General Hospital.

Ecclesall Bierlow Union

Included Ecclesall Bierlow, Nether Hallam and Upper Hallam. The workhouse was built in 1842-1843 and later became the site of Nether Edge Hospital.

Wortley Union

After 1849 included Bradfield, Ecclesfield, Stocksbridge and Wortley. (It had originally included those townships which in 1849 were formed into Penistone Union.) The workhouse was built in 1881 at Grenoside and later the site was used for residential care accommodation.

Location of records

Sheffield Archives, with a few items available at the Local Studies Library.

Ordering documents

Not all archive material is stored onsite and we may require notice of the items you wish to see. Please contact us to confirm when we can retrieve items for you.

Access to some records may be restricted under the Data Protection Act and may also be subject to exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act. Please contact us for further details.


We can normally supply copies for private study purposes, subject to the usual copyright and access restrictions.

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A vast range of records was created by the Board of Guardians, the Master of the Workhouse and other union officials.

There were the official minutes of the Board and of its various committees, financial ledgers, reports and letter books; for the paupers in the workhouse there were the admission and discharge registers, creed registers, registers of births, baptisms, deaths and burials, relief order books, medical officer’s examination books and registers of children apprenticed and boarded out.

The records of the Sheffield unions, however, have had a very poor survival rate. By order of the Ministry of Health in 1925 the Ecclesall Bierlow and Sheffield unions were dissolved and a new combined Sheffield Union was created.

Many of the records were then stored together and were destroyed as a consequence of bombing during the Sheffield blitz in World War II.

The main series of surviving records include:

Ecclesall Bierlow Union

Admission or creed registers 1883-1931; asylum admission registers 1920-1928; registers of inmates 1904-1931; workhouse birth registers 1898-1929; workhouse death registers 1903-1931; officers’ appointments 1892-1925 (Sheffield Archives CA 18/19, LD 2078).

Reports, with lists of officers, accounts, year ended 1913, 1916-1919, 1921-1923 (Local Studies Library 352.9 S).

Sheffield Union

Guardians’ minutes 1890-1930 and letter books 1847-1861; officers’ appointments 1876-1913; workhouse punishment book 1903-1926, dietary 1919 (Sheffield Archives CA 692/1-35, CA24, CA 510)

Copy minutes 1891/2–1929/30; Statement of Accounts, 1884–1930 (with gaps); Guardian handbook and list of committees, 1894-1904, 1906-1929 (Local Studies Library 352.9 S and 352.9 SQ).

Wortley Union

Guardians’ minutes 1838-1929; committee minutes 1884-1929 (Sheffield Archives SY 164).

Public Assistance Committee Annual Report of the work, 1931-1939 (Local Studies Library 352.9 S).

Further reading

Sources for the Study of Sheffield Workhouses: our publications

  • Poor Law Union Records 2: Midlands and Northern England by Jeremy Gibson and Colin Rogers (Federation of Family History Societies, third edition, 2008) (Sheffield Archives: GIB/HEALTH)
  • The Workhouse includes maps and photographs as well as potted histories of the unions
  • Our Daily Bread, by A R Fearnley (Author, 2001) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 362.58 S)
  • The Institution and Hospital at Fir Vale: a centenary history of the Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, by Peter Speck (Northern General Hospital, 1978) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 362.110942 Q; also available at Sheffield Archives: SPE/HEALTH)
  • The Sheffield Workhouse near Kelham Island , by T J Caulton [In] Aspects of Sheffield 1, pp 167-181 (Wharncliffe Publishing, 1997) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 942.74 S)
  • The Children of the State: Sheffield’s Successful Experiment reprinted from ‘The Councillor and Guardian’, 1898 [and] The Scattered Homes for Children: historical sketch…presented by the Children’s Homes Committee to the Sheffield Board of Guardians, 20th March, 1907 (Sheffield Independent Press, 1907) [Facsimile reprint of both issued in one volume 2006] (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 362.732 SQ)
  • Memories of the Workhouse and Old Hospital at Fir Vale by Lyn Howsam (ALD Design & Print, 2002) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 362.11SQ; also available at Sheffield Archives: HOW/HEALTH)
  • Our Workhouse System, by R J P Smith (five articles reprinted from the Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1896) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: Local Pamphlets, volume 7, No.1 042 SQ)
  • Life in the Workhouse and Old Hospital at Fir Vale by Lyn Howsam (ALD Design & Print, 2006) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 362.11SQ; also available at Sheffield Archives: HOW/HEALTH)
  • The Story of the Workhouse and the Hospital at Nether Edge by Joan Flett (ALD Design & Print, second edition 2002) (Sheffield Local Studies Library: 362.11SQ; also available at Sheffield Archives: FLET/HEALTH)

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Original paper records.