Overseer's Order Books: Goods Ordered by Workhouse Master (OO)

A page from the Overseers' Order Book, for May 1788 St Clement Danes, Overseers' Order Book, 1788-91, Westminster Archives Centre, Ms B1248, LL ref: WCCDOO363000009.


Books of orders were drawn up to allow overseers of the poor, workhouse masters and other parish officers to record the process of ordering goods. In the example reproduced on this website, all orders issued on behalf of the workhouse belonging to St Clement Danes for food, clothing and other items were entered in a rough chronology. The eventual delivery of these goods and an indication that payment had been made was then recorded in the form of a large cross over the name of the supplier in the left hand column, or to the right of the description of the goods supplied. Order books of this sort are of particular importance because they reflect the types of goods and in particular food that was actually provided to the poor, rather than the idealised versions of workhouse diets listed in published sources.

Historical Background

St Clement Danes established its first substantial workhouse in the early 1770s, and by the mid-1780s had instituted a comprehensive programme of workhouse care for the adult poor, in combination with rural nursing at Enfield for children under six, and industrial apprenticeships to large northern textile mills for older children.1 By the same date, and following a period of severe public criticism at the hands of Jonas Hanway, the parish had also attracted the reputation as the best casualty parish (where relief for the poor was relatively easy to obtain) in Westminster. On the date this particular order book was started (2 May 1788), there were 268 inmates in the parish workhouse.

Layout and Content

This volume takes the form of a series of entries separated by horizontal lines, detailing who supplied the house and with what goods. The book is in rough chronological order, and prices are occasionally, but not consistently, included. The date is normally given at the top of the page, and in association with the entry recording the first order of a new day. The process whereby the volume was constructed is reflected in the first substantive entry in the main section. It records the first order as being to a Mr Clarke for: "This book, 3000 Overseers orders for the House and one pencil". This suggests in turn that printed blank order forms were in use, and that each paragraph in this volume corresponds with one of these. The crosses in the right and left hand column were probably inserted at a later date to record the delivery of the goods, and the accounting of the related expenditure. The volume also contains a list of lunatick paupers maintained at a private asylum. For a detailed analysis of this particular order book and how it was created, see How to Interpret an Eighteenth-Century Manuscript.

Introductory Reading

  • Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. 2004, ch. 6.
  • Jones, Peter. Clothing the Poor in Early-Nineteenth-Century England. Textile History, 37:1 (2006), pp. 17-37.
  • Tomkins, Alannah. The Experience of Urban Poverty, 1723-82: Parish, Charity and Credit. Manchester, 2006.

Online Resources

For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography.

Documents Included on this Website

  • St Clement Danes, Overseers' Order Book, 1788-91, Westminster Archives Centre, Ms. B1248, LL ref: WCCDOO36300, Tagging Level: C


1 See Katrina Honeyman, Child Workers in England, 1780-1820: Parish Apprentices and the Making of the Early Industrial Labour Force (Aldershot, 2007).