Records for the poor

The Otago Benevolent Institution Casebooks

During their research, most family historians will find a family who were not only poor but required the assistance of the parish or government in order to make ends meet.  Many of you reading this will be familiar with records available for such circumstances in the UK- but what about New Zealand?

Unfortunately, there aren't many records available in New Zealand relating to those who needed help for short or longer periods.  However, all is not lost.  Archives NZ is the first place to look for such records – the hospital, police and charity record series should be of use, as well as Department of Education, Social Security, Child Welfare and District/Magistrates Courts.  The Appendices of the Journal of the House of Representatives (AJHRs or A to Js) can also be fruitful and these are available on-line, up until 1954 and name searchable.

One of the earlier charitable agencies were the Benevolent Societies. The Auckland Benevolent Society is the oldest in New Zealand, and was formed to provide non-institutional aid to women and children through voluntary charitable work with an emphasis on personal visits, providing advice and sympathy as well as support in kind, clothing, food, blankets, rent, fares etc. Download Charitable Aid fact sheet.

Outdoor Relief Casebook Nos 1-556

Recently the records for the Otago Benevolent Institution Outdoor Relief casebooks 1889-c.1910 were digitised; they can be viewed for free through the Archway website. Each volume is indexed although one volume is missing.

As I have family in Dunedin, I decided to have a look "on spec" and was duly rewarded. So what did I learn?  Quite a lot. Such as how much rent was paid, the amount of relief paid and when, where they lived, if anyone in the house was working, what they did, and how much they were paid, and the circumstances of application. For example: "Husband been in the Asylum for the last 14 months. She says she does very little work." You also get insight into the character of those involved, such as this comment: “There is not a bit of reliance to be placed upon this woman's word." Other information includes how long they'd been receiving assistance and any extras that were paid for, such as boots.

Outdoor Relief Casebook Nos 4447-5004

This has given me more of a sense of the character of the women involved and an insight into their living conditions. I'm unaware of any other Benevolent Society casebooks having been digitised so you'd probably need to visit Archives NZ to view those for the area of your interest but it will be a worthwhile exercise.

Author: Marie Hickey -  Research Central