Saturday, 27 October 2012

Scottish Local History Forum Conference

Yesterday I attended the Scottish Local History Forum Conference at the AK Bell Library in Perth. The theme of the conference was “For Reliefe of the Pure and Impotent”: Welfare in Scotland before the Welfare State and it comprised nine talks on a broad range of topics connected to the poor in Scotland. 

The day began with Robin Urquhart from the National Records of Scotland giving an overview of poor relief in the period 1560-1894. This provided a useful background to the rest of the talks. Next, the Rev. Dr. Johnston McKay discussed Thomas Chalmers’s Glasgow experiment and the differing opinions as to whether or not it was a success. 

Dr. Irene O’Brien “painted the local picture in the west of Scotland” drawing upon the collection of records held at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Having heard Dr. O’Brien speak before, some of the material was familiar to me, but the statistics she provided were particularly interesting - for example, that in the 1890s only 20% of those receiving poor relief were living in the poorhouse, the majority receiving outdoor relief. I also hadn’t appreciated the compulsion on single mothers (widows, the deserted and mothers of illegitimate children) to enter the poorhouse, primarily to prevent them having more children! 

Iain Flett from Dundee City Archives described the poorhouses that existed in Dundee from the 1500s to the 1900s. Unfortunately, the fate of most of Dundee’s poor registers reflects that of Edinburgh’s, having been deliberately destroyed because people wanted to look at them, although records do survive for the East Poorhouse. This was followed by Gordon Douglas speaking (and singing!) about the Mars Training Ship. Although I’d heard of the Mars, I was unaware that it took boys from all over Scotland or that around half of them came from Glasgow (especially Catholic boys who were not accepted by many institutions). 

After lunch, Dr. Malcolm Bangor-Jones discussed growing old in 19th century Sutherland, providing an interesting contrast to the earlier talks on the urban poor. He mentioned the role played by landlords and the information to be found in estate records, particularly the Sutherland Papers. Patricia Whatley from the University of Dundee described medical services (or rather the lack of them) in the Highlands 1845-1913, concluding with the Dewar Report and the creation of the Highlands and Islands Medical Service, a forerunner of the NHS. 

The final talks were by Dr. Eric Graham on The Incorporation of the Masters and Assistants of Trinity House and their role in caring for the seafaring community, and Elizabeth Henderson on Friendly Societies in West Lothian. Both talks highlighted that relief of the poor was not only the concern of the church or the parochial boards, and that self-help through membership of a trade incorporation or friendly society was also important. 

I definitely learnt a lot and had a great day. My main criticism would be that as each speaker only had a 25-30 minute slot they had to gallop through their material at quite a pace, which in every case could easily have filled a hour or more. However, this did mean that a broad range of topics were covered, if not in depth, and this really emphasized the wide variety of records available for studying the Scottish poor. Although there were plenty of genealogists in the audience, I didn’t get the impression that most of the speakers had ‘dumbed-down’ for a family/local history audience, which made a pleasant change. 

Some of the main points I took away from the day were: that the change from the Old Poor Law to the New Poor Law was more a change in administration than a fundamental change in policy; that despite the threat of the poorhouse being used as a test of destitution, the most common experience of the poor in Scotland was one of outdoor relief; and that poor relief was not intended to be a sole means of support but rather topped up the help received from other sources. 

I was very interested to see several examples of printed poor rolls, similar to those I previously blogged about here that exist for Edinburgh. Apparently these were produced so that ratepayers could see who was getting their money and raise objections if they didn’t consider the recipients to be deserving! I would be interested to know how many of these printed lists of names survive for other areas of Scotland, as presumably producing them was a fairly common practice. 

Patricia Whatley kindly mentioned my Records of the Scottish Poor list during her talk, and as a result of attending the conference I’ve added a few more details. 

The next conference from the Scottish Local History Forum will be the Spring Conference and Local History Mini Fair to take place in Kinghorn, Fife on 26 April 2013. The theme is ‘Salt, Sun & Shivering: Scots at the Seaside 1750-2000’. Although this may not be of quite as much interest to genealogists, I’m sure it will be another enjoyable day. 

I’ve previously been disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of conferences for genealogists in the UK, beyond the very basic talks given at most family history fairs. Although the SLHF Conference was not aimed specifically at genealogists (or perhaps because of that), it provided a great deal of information about an important genealogical source. 

With the Previously... Scotland’s History Festival in Edinburgh next month, the Scottish Association of Family History Societies conference to be held in Galashiels in May 2013, planned celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the Scottish Genealogy Society and the Halsted Trust Conference ‘Exodus: Movement of the People’ in September 2013, I look forward to attending a lot more conferences in the near future!


  1. Thanks for reporting on the conference, Kirsty, it sounds like a really interesting day. A fair proportion of my own family history is in the Glasgow poor law records (three of my great-grandmothers applied for poor relief, and the only one who didn't was named as a child in her mother's application!).
    I agree with you that there has been a shortage of good quality conferences in the UK, and there isn't even the range of family history fairs (with or without basic talks) that there was a few years ago. As part of my day job I am involved with the arrangements for attending fairs, and it's not easy to find events that warrant the trouble and expense of sending a team, although people do appreciate seeing TNA doing something outside our London base. However, we should be making an announcement very soon about an event next year in the north of England, so keep your eyes peeled. You heard it here first!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Audrey, I remember your interest in poor relief records! I can understand it must be hard to find events that justify the expense of sending a team from TNA.

      Personally, I'm looking for talks etc. where I'll learn something to become a better genealogist and don't feel most of the family history fairs have much to offer. I'd really like to see something akin to the week-long genealogy institutes they have in the States, but don't know if they'd be sufficient interest over here.

      The event in the north of England sounds interesting - look forward to hearing more!

  2. sounds like a great day with lots of useful talks. I wonder if they will be pulishing any of the talks.