We’ve all been there, you turn up to a meeting at work, or at a club or society, everyone gets settled, and then someone asks that dreaded question: do we have anyone to take the minutes? Cue much shuffling of paper and attempts to look busy in the hope that some heroic person will volunteer. Yet the much-avoided process of minute taking results in records that lie at the heart of why archives matter. The humble minute – as a legal record of the actions and decisions of an organisation – helps to ensure accountability and transparency in politics, business, and wider society.
For this reason alone, minute books may be the only series of records that survive to document an organisation, company or club. And often they are the only records to be preserved in their entirety, without gaps. You have only to look at one of the key series of records in the York Civic Archive, the York Council minutes, to find an example of the lasting importance of these records. We hold an unbroken run of the council minutes, known as house books, dating from 1476. And they are our most frequently consulted archives by a long margin.
Within the York Poor Law Union archive there are some records that survive in long runs, but the minutes of the Board of Guardians are the only volumes that survive in an unbroken sequence, from the very first meeting held on 17 July 1837 to the last meeting that took place on 27 March 1930. In a way, these 43 volumes act as a kind of autobiography of the York Poor Law Union, detailing who made decisions, what decisions were made, how the union changed over time, and how it interacted with individuals and other organisations.
However, in my experience, Poor Law Union minute books are a sorely underused resource. This is not without reason. For a start, the indexes to these weighty volumes, where they do exist, can be very patchy. In an age when producing an index was a completely manual process, some clerks were clearly more diligent than others. Minute books can also be frustrating. If you don’t have a precise term, or date within which to search, then you may find yourself wading through a lot of material that has absolutely nothing to do with your original enquiry. In the case of the poor law minutes, I suspect there is also the issue of not knowing what to expect. Researchers, naturally enough, may be unaware of the type of business likely to be discussed in a nineteenth-century Board of Guardians meeting.
Despite all this, the rewards of consulting minute books can be great. The eclectic nature of the information recorded means that you are never quite sure what you may come across. The business of the Guardians ranged from approving accounts, reading correspondence, dealing with individual cases of poor relief, approving apprenticeships, child emigration, staffing, hearing reports from officials (such as the Master of the workhouse) and a host of other matters. There is really something for everyone in these volumes, whether you are interested in finding out more about an individual, or you are chasing data for numbers in the workhouse. You can read about the tit for tat spats that the York Guardians carried on with other Poor Law Unions, and you can witness how their approach to the poor changed over the course of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.
I have put together a short gallery of extracts from the Board of Guardians’ minutes to illustrate just some of the fascinating stories to be discovered, enjoy.