an insight into the workings of the Poor Law in North Norfolk



In the early part of 2010 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) placed on the FamilySearch web site approximately one million Norfolk-related records in the form of document image files, including:

I was drawn to the Poor Law Union records, not only because of a particular interest in the history of Norfolk's poor, but also because of the wealth of family history detail that the documents might contain, especially in my own area of Norfolk - the Erpingham Union district in the North East of the County which includes Holt, Sheringham, Cromer, North Walsham and their surrounding villages (listed below).

At the time of writing there are 138,680 images, divided into the the Unions of:






East and West Flegg



Freebridge Lynn



King's Lynn

Loddon and Clavering

Mitford and Launditch



South Lynn

St Faith's







In some cases a Union's records include several books such as detailed registers of admissions & discharges to workhouses, grants of 'relief' and lists of poor-rate payers, but others consist only of one or two books of Minutes.

The majority of the documents appear to date from the introduction of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and cover the detailed activities of the Act's implementation and the sometimes awkward transition from the arrangements established under the Relief of the Poor Act 1782 ('Gilbert's Act').  The latter had already established Unions (groupings of Parishes), and most of them had erected 'Houses of Industry' for the accommodation of their orphaned, sick, elderly and infirm paupers.  Management then was very much at a local level, so there were wide variations in the then current practice within individual Counties as well as across the Country as a whole.

Under the new Act, each Union was to be managed by a Board of Guardians of the Poor, to include one or more Guardians elected annually from each Parish, plus the local Justices of the Peace as ex-officio members.  They were accountable to the Poor Law Commissioners whose local representative, the Assistant Poor Law Commissioner, had been made responsible for carrying the Act into effect at a regional level.

Family tree

Composition of the Erpingham Union

The post-1834 Erpingham Union comprised the following Parishes:





Parish locations

Barningham Norwood

Barningham Winter


Beeston Regis





Cley next the Sea



East Beckham





















North Repps

North Walsham










South Repps






Thorpe Market





West Beckham




- Previously part of the Aldborough Gilbert Union; workhouse at Sheringham
- Previously part of the Gimingham Gilbert Union; workhouse at Gimingham
- Parish workhouse

The Workhouses of the Union

Gimingham 1885 Beckham 1885 1990s photo 1 1990s photo 2 1990s photo 3 Sheringham 1926 Recent pic at Sheringham
Gimingham map
Beckham map
The Beckham Infirmary in the 1990s; all that was left Upper Sheringham
map (1926)
The Sheringham
building today


Heritage Centre 1 Heritage Centre 2 Heritage Centre 3 Beckham picture 4   1950s account
The Beckham workhouse main building after its final closure (as an old people's home) in the 1970s
(these photographs are © Norfolk County Council and Picture Norfolk)
  A description of the Beckham
Workhouse (see below)

An unattributed document found in Sheringham Museum describes the Beckham workhouse as it was up to the 1950s.  I'm grateful to the Museum for allowing me to transcribe and include it here.


"The Workhouse"

West Beckham Poor Law Institution was built in the 1850's as a successor to the old "House of Industry" in Upper Sheringham (the latter is still standing, used till a few years ago as Upper Sheringham School).  It is said that the present building was built to replace an earlier one destroyed by fire).

This Institution was under the control of the Board of Guardians of the Erpingham Union (who were a body similar to the present R.D.C.) and amongst its members were Magistrates, Farmers and the Clergy, and some of them served on both the "Guardians" and the "Council."

 This Board of Guardians was split up into Committees, the most important was the "House Committee" who dealt with the day to day running of this building, and made recommendations to the full Board of Guardians who met once a month.  The Staff who carried out the orders of the Guardians were the "Master" who did the clerical work from his office in the building, and to whom the Cooks, Porter, and other staff would see each morning to get their instructions for the day.  The Master was also responsible for the ordering of all supplies, food and clothing, and anything to do with the general supervision.  The Matron (a State Registered Nurse) was usually the Master's Wife; it was common practice that this was a joint appointment.  Her duty was mainly to be in charge of all that affected the women inmates, and to deal with all cases of illness until the Medical Officer - usually a specially appointed local Doctor - was called in.

The Residents of the Institution.  These were in the following classes:

  • Men and women who were so poor that they had no money to provide a home and living for themselves, or who had no relatives who could or would be prepared to help them.

  • Elderly sick people not likely to recover whom the Hospitals could not keep for any length of time who also had no-one else to care for them.

  • Boys and girls who had lost their parents by death and had no relatives who would take them in.

The able-bodied men worked the Allotment Gardens or Piggeries attached to the Institution.  The Women worked in the Laundry in the Building, and did general cleaning or the vegetable preparation in the kitchens, some who were handy with a needle did mending of clothing, or sheets, or made curtains. The children at one time lived in a separate part of the building, looked after by a Man and Woman called "Foster-Parents," later they had their own Children's Home down at Gresham.  Usually there were about 24.

One distressing fact was that when married couples came into the Institution they were separated, and men and women had rooms in different parts known as the "Men's Dayroom" and the "Women's Dayroom" and this of course also applied for sleeping purposes.  Also, on the occasions that services or concerts were held, the men sat down on one side of the hall and the women on the other, separated by a wide gangway.  At Christmas outside Choirs and other organisations were allowed to come and give entertainments and bring gifts of sweets for the old ladies and tobacco for the men.

The Infirmary Block was a separate building in which were housed the chronic sick and bed-ridden.  These were looked after by a Charge Nurse (State Registered) and assistant Nurses under her orders, the whole being under the final supervision of Matron.

Apart from the main building was a special section known as the "Casual Wards."  Into this place came tramps who could obtain a meal and bed for one night.  The next morning they had to saw logs or chop firewood before they were given permission to leave; this was as a payment for their keep.  They usually then moved on to the next workhouse to the east at Aylsham, or to the west at Snoring.  The man in charge of the work was usually a big, tough, hefty chap officially known as a Porter, but better known for his nickname "The Tramp Major."  He had a rough crowd to deal with and he took no back answers from anyone.

The men were all dressed alike in rough grey suits or corduroy trousers, with blue and white check neckerchiefs and hobnailed boots.  The women had stiff linen dresses, check aprons and heavy shoes. 

It was considered a terrible disgrace for anyone to put their parents or relatives into the workhouse.  In the 1930s, Boards of Guardians were succeeded by Guardians' Committees of the Norfolk County Council, and conditions took a turn for the better.  The building was modernised as far as possible, mainly by painting it in brighter colours, putting red polish on the grey stone floors, and getting flowered curtains for some of the windows, especially in the Infirmary Block.

In July 1948 an Act came into being which said that in future all Public Institutions would be known as "Homes" or Hospitals, and "The West Beckham Hospital" came into being.  After the Second World War from 1946 onwards, German girls came over to work on the Staff, and the Infirmary wing became used as a Maternity Block for local Mothers to come and have their babies.

Finally certain sections were sold and turned into flats, in the first instance occupied by some wives and families of the American Forces stationed within the area.  Then the building was named by some wit as "West Beckham Palace" and now it's hardly one thing or the other, but to the locals it is still referred to as BECKHAM WORK'US.

It is the present practice of the Norfolk County Council to do away with these old type buildings and replace them with smaller modern well-equipped buildings, taking only about 30 or so residents in place of the 100 or more of the olden days.  There has been very good progress in help for the sick and poor since the days when Beckham was a word that sent a shudder down the spines of people.

The Erpingham Union Records

The Erpingham Union's 2098 images are copies of the Minute Books of the meetings of the Board of Guardians from 12 April 1836 to 26 January 1852, with each image covering two pages.  All of the images have been transcribed into four volumes (below).  It should be noted that the LDS images are only a subset of the original documents that are held at the Norfolk Record Office (NRO).  The NRO's minute books continue well after the last entry filmed by the Mormons (1852) and cover the period 1836-1930 (Catalogue Reference C/GP 6/1-51; this transcription relates to C/GP 6/1-9 only).  If those later documents are digitised in my lifetime I will be happy to continue the transcription task!

In every case where a record is made of money received or expended, a number in the margin gives a cross-reference to the appropriate Folio(s) in the accounts Ledger.  The numbers have not been included in the transcription.

The Transcriptions

I have attempted to transcribe the original documents as accurately as possible with regard to both content and format and for that reason I have kept corrections to a minimum and left several of the original grammatical and spelling errors as they are.  There are several instances of the 'grocer's apostrophe.'  The following points should also be noted:

The Minutes

The following PDF files represent significant effort on my part over the last 3 years, so please don't 're-publish' them at another location in their entirety, but by all means feel free to link to them or reproduce extracts.

Minutes of Board Meetings of the Erpingham Union Poor Law Guardians Volume 1; 1836 - 1840 11.6 MB
Minutes of Board Meetings of the Erpingham Poor Law Union Guardians Volume 2; 1841 - 1844 10.6 MB
Minutes of Board Meetings of the Erpingham Poor Law Union Guardians Volume 3; 1845 - 1848 11.8 MB
Minutes of Board Meetings of the Erpingham Poor Law Union Guardians Volume 4; 1849 - Jan 1852 7.2 MB
A Glossary of Terms used in the Minutes 144 KB


Occupancy chart
A chart of workhouse occupancy 1837-1847 derived
 from weekly returns made in the Minutes

Supporting Documents

The following documents contain more detail about the individuals mentioned in the Minutes.  Do please get in touch if you can add information or help to identify particular people.


The Elected Guardians 270 KB
The Ex-officio Guardians 71 KB
The Paupers, their friends and relations  (note that the dates that are included against each name are those of the related Board meetings) 777 KB
The Officers of the Union (salaried) 258 KB
Other Players - tradesmen, contractors, big-wigs, hangers-on etc. 483 KB
Key dates relevant to one Phoebe Randall 228 KB
A list of Paupers in Sheringham Workhouse 2 Oct 1841 (loose sheet found in the first Minutes book) 82 KB
1841 Census return for Sheringham Workhouse 32 KB
1841 Census return for Gimingham Workhouse 26 KB
1851 Census return for West Beckham Workhouse 125 KB