Prior to the early nineteenth century, relief for poor people was provided in each parish or township by officials called overseers of the poor (sometimes assisted by the churchwardens). The overseers provided poorhouses in which the elderly and infirm could live (this was called indoor relief). They also purchased materials on which to set the able-bodied poor to work (outdoor relief). The Justices of the Peace, meeting in Quarter Sessions, supervised poor relief across the county.
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 altered the system by uniting parishes into Poor Law Unions controlled by elected Boards of Guardians. Each Poor Law Union was to have a workhouse which became the basis of the poor relief system. Only the sick and elderly were intended to receive outdoor relief. The able-bodied poor were expected to enter the workhouse to obtain assistance. Conditions inside the workhouses were made deliberately unpleasant in order to discourage requests for help. Families were split up between the male and female wards, the diet was restricted and poor, and work offered was demeaning and unpleasant.
The Boards of Guardians also had additional responsibilities not related to the Poor Law including registration of births, marriages and deaths from 1837, vaccination from 1840, rate assessment from 1862 and school attendance from 1876.
Poor Law Unions and Boards of Guardians were abolished in 1929. Their functions were transferred to the County Councils.
The following are held by the Cumbria Archive Centres; where microfilm copies are available they must be consulted in place of originals, for conservation reasons.