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New poor law data highlight the everyday illnesses of Dorset’s working poor

Today lists of able-bodied workers paid poor relief by the Blandford Poor Law Union for the years 1858-61 have been added to the site (those for 1853-57 were published last year). These entries – now totalling 1,742 – shed light on the kind of illnesses poor workers and their families experienced in their daily lives. The data, sorted alphabetically, can be accessed here.

Most recipients were men and these payments were usually because of their own or their families’ illnesses. Occasionally relief was given for funeral expenses or transport costs to hospital, and there are a few orders for the individual to enter the workhouse. These lists began to appear in the poor law guardians’ minutes in December 1853. The form of relief – whether in cash or in kind – is rarely recorded in the original records.

One thousand entries state the nature of the medical condition giving rise to the relief. These include rheumatism (13%), influenza (10%), abscesses (5%) and hernias (4%). Agricultural labourers, working in the wet and the cold, were particularly prone to rheumatism, and many hernias were caused by hard manual labour in the fields. Blandford Union issued trusses to hernia sufferers: over time these rotted and the springs rusted, and the wearer normally needed a new one every few years. Joseph Andrews of Pimperne received a truss three times from 1856 to 1861, and on two other occasions he received unspecified relief for ‘rupture’ – that may also have been in the form of a new truss. Likewise John Ford, also of Pimperne, received a new truss four times from 1854 to 1859.

The relevance of these data to Dorset County Hospital is that they further our understanding of the medical histories of the hospital’s patients. For instance, Charles Giles, an agricultural labourer in his fifties, originally from Tarrant Hinton, received poor relief from the union twice in 1856 because he had pyrosis (usually known as heartburn – a painful, burning feeling in the chest caused by stomach acid flowing back into the oesophagus). In between those two payments he was admitted as an in-patient to Dorset County Hospital with dyspepsia (indigestion). He remained in the hospital for less than a month. Later that year he was admitted again as a medical in-patient, this time to Salisbury Infirmary. The reason for his admission is not recorded but it is likely it was related to his digestive problems. He remained an in-patient for two months and then was made an out-patient at Salisbury for a further three months. The burning sensations he experienced were, of course, symptoms rather than the underlying disease. He died in 1858 of ‘schirrhus of the pylorus’ – a cancerous growth in his digestive system.

Some individuals were frequent recipients of relief: for instance Charles Skivington (or Skyvington) from Charlton Marshall received relief 23 times from 1854 to 1861, for his illnesses or those of his family. He personally suffered from lumbago, influenza (numerous times), an abscess on his finger, stomach ‘affection’, rheumatism, and a back injury. Overall there are only seven entries relating to consumption and only one cholera case. The vast majority of the relief was given to men like Skivington, an otherwise able-bodied worker, who suffered a series of what historian Tim Davies has termed ‘mundane maladies’.

The poor relief lists can be found in the minutes of the Blandford Union Poor Law Guardians, which are held at the Dorset History Centre (opens in a new window). The volumes for 1853-61 are referenced BG/BF/A/1/7, BG/BF/A/1/8 and BG/BF/A/1/9.

Posted 16 February 2019

Update on this site and related activity

This site has been dormant for a while because of a serious family illness. However material is still being transcribed and I hope to publish a transcript of the 1861 in-patient admissions register in the next week or so. I also have material on poor law relief paid to the poor on account of illness which I have begun to publish. These transcripts are based on poor law guardians’ minutes, mainly for the 1850s. You can access these Poor Relief Indexes on the Poverty in Dorset page. More names will be added to the indexes in due course.

Also a 7000-word article about the hospital and its patients in the 1850s is due to be published in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society sometime in the first half of this year.

My related site – the Dorset Death Certificate Index ( – now has free transcripts of over 880 death certificates for people whose deaths were registered in Dorset from 1837 onwards.

Please follow the Twitter account @HistoryDCH for updates.

Posted 2 February 2019

Dorset Death Certificate Index now live

The new website with death certificate details has gone live and already there are 279 records. The period covered is 1837 to 1875 – slightly extended from what was originally intended. The coverage might be extended further once the supply of donated death certificates has been exhausted.

My interest is the 1850s – tying the death certificates in with hospital records and poor law records – to look at the illnesses that people lived with, not just the ones they died of. So, for instance, Jane Applin, a farmer’s wife from Fontmell, did not die until 1861 – but the death certificate tells us she was living with acute bronchitis for 15 years.

Dorset DCI is free to use and each entry contains all the information you find on a death certificate apart from the name of the registrar and the date of registration. The entries are arranged in alphabetical order and there is also a search function. This allows you to search for people (such as relatives) who registered the deaths. If you donate a scanned death certificate to the site, I will not give copies to anyone else, but the information on the certificate will be transcribed and published.

The more entries we have, the more useful this site will be to everyone, so please help by emailing scans of your death certificates to either or All donations will be acknowledged so if you haven’t heard from me, please get back in touch.

Posted 30 March 2018

Bring out your dead!

Please donate scans of your death certificates

As an extension to this website I am doing a project on illnesses and causes of death in Dorset in the 19th century. For this I need copies of death certificates of people who died in Dorset from 1837 to 1870. Details from all donated death certificates will be put on a separate website as a free resource for everyone to share. I will publicise the website address here when it is launched.

To help this project, please email scans of your death certificates to:

Posted 25 March 2018