Family History at the Mitchell


A packed hall turned up to listen to Dr. Irene O’ Brien’s talk on Glasgow City Archives and Family History in October 2014. It was particularly heartening to see so many new members had come to the meeting – one member travelling from Aberdeen!

Dr. O’Brien, the city’s archvist, really needs no introduction as she has been in charge of the archives (now on fifth floor) at the Mitchell Library in North Street for many years. An archivist for 30 years, she has extensive knowledge of archives in Scotland and regularly speaks extensively on Scottish genealogical subjects to family history societies across the country. She also runs Irish family history classes. Irene was on the Board for the Post-graduate course on Genealogical Studies at Strathclyde in its first three years and is a member of the Scottish Government Ancestral Tourism group. Irene has appeared on several genealogical programmes and famously made Jeremy Paxman cry when he read details of his illegitimate ancestor’s hard life.

Jessie Robertson Cleghorn applied for assistance in 1896
Jessie Robertson Cleghorn applied for assistance in 1896

The speaker packed a huge amount in to the hour long talk and emphasised that the Glasgow collections tell the stories of people, places and events, putting flesh on the bare bones of your family history. Researchers can find
answers to all sorts of topics especially the living and working conditions of ordinary Glaswegians, work places, poverty, incidences of crime, drunkenness, marital breakdown and immigration.

The archives also have details of church connections, schools, careers and final resting places. But the speaker warned that people should be aware that not all the records are of upright, God fearing souls. In fact, you may be ‘lucky’ to find that your forebears fell on hard times, were convicted of some crime, accused of immorality or called up before the Kirk Session to answer for their behaviour, as these documents are likely to be more detailed, and more interesting than those of honest citizens.

One of the real jewels in the crown in the archives are the five thousand volumes of Poor Law applications which contain the names of about a million people.

The GWSFH society started indexing these in the 1970s and we have an index database in the premises in Partick on computer. The full index up to the establishment of the welfare state in 1948 is on computer in Glasgow archives covering the period from when the Poor Law boards were established around 1845 and ceasing in 1930, when it then became ‘Public Assistance’. However there are records up to 1948, although some of the most recent ones, especially involving children, are covered by Data Protection and may be subjected to restricted viewing.

The application above was made by Jessie Robertson Cleghorn who claimed her husband had ‘deserted’ her in 1896. Dr. O’Brien explained the reason for claiming desertion, which was common, the meaning of ‘wholly disabled’ or ‘partially disabled’ and the difference between outdoor relief and indoor relief.

Parish of Glasgow application for relief for Michael McKeown

Some of the poor law applications may contain more than just the standard form written up by the poor law inspector. There are newspaper cuttings, court reports, letters from doctors or ministers or other interested parties, and if you are very lucky there may even be a photograph of your ancestor, in the large bound volumes.

William Mckeown who appears in the ‘poor law’ had been a professional footballer but his entry gives details of his death in 1903 when his body was found in an outddoor disused kiln, where he regularly took shelter, being homeless. The words drink and separated from wife since 1893 are prominent. There is a full report of his footballing career and the fact that he had served in the army, in the newspaper article attached to his record. Irene described how the Scots actor, Brian Cox, was particularly miffed when she told him that one of his great grandfathers had been described as a malingerer in his poor law application.

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