Following the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, England and
Wales were divided into Poor Law Unions. The Unions were
created by amalgamating together adjoining parishes,
townships and other places. The number of Poor Law Unions
grew by a process of subdivision and whilst in 1851 there
were 624 of them by 1861 there were 635. In 1837 the Poor Law
Unions became responsible for the registration of vital
events, that is the recording of births, marriages and death.
For this reason there were also known as Registration
Most of the Poor Law Unions were, in turn, based upon market towns, and included the surrounding parishes which were serviced by their weekly market and other facilities. As the Poor Law Commissioners themselves put it in their First Annual Report of the Poor Law Commissioners (p 19),
The limits of unions which we have found most convenient are those of a circle, taking a market town as a centre, and comprehending those surrounding parishes whose inhabitants are accustomed to resort to the same market. This arrangement was found highly convenient for the weekly attendances of the parish officers, and some portion of the guardians. Some auxiliaries to good management were derived from the town itself .
[NB The registration counties and the old ancient (or civic counties) did not always correspond in area and population. The civic counties were simply the old ancient counties into which England and Wales had long been divided. In contrast, registration counties were defined by simply amalgamating together those registration districts that fell entirely or mainly within an ancient county. This is important because registration districts sometimes crossed county boundaries and were thus located partly within two or more ancient counties].
In 1851, 1861 and 1871 the Poor Law Union or Registration Districts was one of the main geographical areas used by the census authorities for the publication of its statistics. In 1861 the information published at this level included the following tables: the numbers of males and females, the total population and the numbers of inhabited and uninhabited houses; the ages of males and females in five-year age groups; the numbers of boys and girls aged under five; the marital condition of males and females broken down by age group; the occupations of males and females aged 20 and over; the birthplaces of males and females aged under 20, and aged 20 and over; the numbers of blind, deaf and dumb people; and the inmates of workhouses, prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals. It should be added that the occupation tables are incredibly detailed and in total some 425 male and 275 female occupational categories were distinguished on the basis of the materials used by those employed in each category.
Every year the Registrar General in his Annual Report gave details of the total numbers of births (legitimate and illegitimate), the numbers of deaths and their causes and the numbers of marriages in each registration district. The marriage tables also reported the numbers of brides and bridegrooms signing the marriage register with an 'X' - this being a crude measure of illiteracy.
Finally, the Poor Law Commissioners reported to parliament once every six months on the numbers of people in receipt of both indoor and outdoor relief.
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