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Berkshire Overseers Project

The Berkshire Overseers Project

by Jocie McBride

These records have been put into a calendar recording all the significant details from the documents of administration of the Poor Laws of Berkshire from 1601 to 1834 and now deposited with the Berkshire Record Office. This Project was led by Brian Hunt of Berks FHS with significant help from the Berkshire Record Office. It took 12 years to complete and was initially published on fiche in 26 Volumes. A list of the volumes and the Parishes covered in each volume is given at the end of this article.

Many of these fiche are still available for sale from as is the new CD that contains all 26 volumes, together with a readily searchable index which has been recently published by the Society. It was found to be necessary to further abbreviate the transcripts on the fiche considerably, but with the extra space available on a CD this was no longer necessary.

The CD is in Adobe PDF format ready for use with the Acrobat Reader and can be bought for £18.10 within the UK, or £19.10 for airmail postage outside the United Kingdom. It will be available for online ordering shortly, but in the meantime can be added to the postal mail order form.


The poor in England and Wales lived under the Shadow of the Settlement Laws from the middle of the seventeenth century, until the end of the Old Poor Law in 1834. The administration of these settlement laws through the Justices of the Peace, the Churchwardens and the Overseers of each parish generated a great many documents, substantial numbers of which have survived to our own day. The main records for the study of the Old Poor Law are the Overseers’ accounts of receipts and disbursements. These include many references to monies disbursed in the administration of the laws of settlement. But these are by no means the only records available. Of great importance to the local, economic, social and family historians, not least because of the detailed information they contain about individual cases, are the many orders, examinations and certificates, which were prepared by the Justices and Parish Officers. Approximately 6000 of these have survived in Berkshire.

Besides administering the laws of settlement, these same Justices and Parish Officers dealt with a variety of other matters under the various Poor Acts, producing documents such as apprenticeship indentures, bastardy allegations, examinations and bonds and militia documents. Altogether some 4000 of these documents survive in Berkshire.

These 10,000, or so, documents are those in the deposited parish collections in the Berkshire Record Office and listed in the parish catalogue sections 13 to 18. The survival rate of these records varies markedly across the county. Several parishes have no original records of this type at all, whilst some have several hundreds and two have over a thousand. The fact that few or no original documents have survived for a particular place does not mean that it is unrepresented in the overall BRO holding. The exchange of copy settlement certificates between relevant parishes and the sometimes very detailed record of a person’s life history revealed in the examinations for settlement mean that many other associated place names are to be found in the records of a single parish. Moreover, it is sometimes the case that copies or abstracts of such documents have been entered in registers or transcribed into Minute or Account Books.

The Overseers Project

The Overseers Project first began shortly after the formation of the BFHS in 1975 and was revived in 1991 as a joint BRO/BFHS venture. It was decided to present the work in the form of a calendar of abbreviated transcript of all the documents, together with comprehensive indices. Because of the size of the task, the completed calendar will be issued in a number of volumes arranged by post 1834 Poor Law Unions.

Contents of the Calendar

Many of the Overseers documents consist of hand-written entries on printed forms, these being subject to minor variations in form over the years and from county to county. Some examples of the most commonly used forms have been copied at the end of the introduction on the fiche. They appear in the order in which they usually occur in the Parish collections.

It has been necessary to abbreviate the transcripts considerably, whilst retaining all the relevant details in each document.

In the preparation of the calendar these basic rules have been applied:

  • Names: The same names sometimes appear several times in the same document. Included are variations in spelling occurring in the same document and, whenever included, full forenames of individuals have been entered, regardless of how the person signed. However, if a surname in a signature differed from that in the text, the fact has been noted. Also added are any relevant endorsements on the reverse of documents, in margins or on envelopes, if these introduce other name variants.
  • Place names: Spellings in the documents have been retained in all cases (but see the note regarding the place name index in “The Indices” below).
  • Notes: These are additions or observations made by the transcriber and do not appear on the original documents. They often refer to nearby contemporary documents, but must not be taken as being fully comprehensive.

Apart from the cases where there is only a single document under a BRO reference, or those cases where the document is a duplicate, each entry in the calendar has two numbers attached to it. The left-hand number is cumulative throughout each volume, and it is this number that is referred to in the indices. The right-hand number refers to the “piece number” in the BRO holdings, which together with the DIP… etc at the start of each section, provides a unique reference to the individual document. Four of these numbers can be seen at the base of the example documents, which are on the fiche.

The Indices

Entries in the calendar have been indexed for personal names, place names and occupations. Numbers in the indices refer to the first or left-hand entry against each document transcript in the calendar. It is hoped that a combined index will be produced covering all 10,000-plus documents when the project is completed.

In the name index, for simplicity, multiple entries of the same name in a single document warrant only one entry in the name index. For example … “John SMITH and Sarah his wife, with their children John and Sarah”… will be indexed once under SMITH, John and once under SMITH, Sarah.

Volumes of the Overseers' Papers

Vol 1 NEWBURY UNION - Chieveley
Vol 2 NEWBURY UNION - Brimpton, Enborne, Wasing & Woolhampton
Vol 3 NEWBURY UNION - Thatcham
Vol 4 BRADFIELD UNION - Aldermaston, Englefield & Pangbourne
Vol 5 BRADFIELD UNION Bucklebury, Burghfield, Stanford Dingley, Sulham, Sulhamstead Abbots, Sulhamstead Bannister & Theale
Vol 6 BRADFIELD UNION - Tilehurst & Padworth
Vol 7 MAIDENHEAD UNION - Bray, Cookham & Waltham St. Lawrence
Vol 8 FARINGDON UNION - Ashbury, Coleshill, Gt.Coxwell, Kingston Lisle, Longworth, Shellingford, Stanford in the Vale, Uffington
Vol 9 WALLINGFORD UNION - Brightwell, Crowmarsh, Gifford, Newnham Murren, Wallingford St Mary & Wallingford St Peter, Long Wittenham
Vol 10 EASTHAMPSTEAD UNION - Easthampstead, Warfield & Winkfield
Vol 11 WOKINGHAM UNION (part) - Shinfield, Sonning, Swallowfield & Wokingham
Vol 12 WOKINGHAM and WINDSOR UNIONS - Finchampstead, Hurst, Sunninghill and Old Windsor
Vol 13 WANTAGE UNION - Blewbury, Brightwell, Hampstead Norris, West Hanney, Harwell, West Hendred, Peasmore, Sparsholt and part of Wantage
Vol 14 WANTAGE UNION - most of Wantage parish
Vol 15 ABINGDON UNION - Abingdon, Cumnor, Drayton, Kingston Bagpuize and Sutton Courtenay
Vol 16-19 READING UNION - Reading St Giles
Vol 20 READING UNION - Reading St Mary (part)
Vol 21 READING UNION - Reading St Mary & St Laurence
Vol 22 READING UNION - Caversham
Vol 23 HUNGERFORD UNION - Kintbury parish and part of Hungerford
Vol 24 HUNGERFORD UNION - Part of Hungerford
Vol 25 HUNGERFORD UNION - Remainder of Hungerford
Vol 26 NEWBURY UNION - Newbury (Settlement Examinations)

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updated 20th September 2005