Poor Relief Registers

With Christmas drawing nearer, our thoughts go out more often to the poor than at any other time of year. We have grown used to governments taking care of the poor in our Western societies. Even in times of crisis, governments cover at least the most basic needs of the poor. But what was it like for our ancestors? Could they rely on some sort of poor relief? And can we still find evidence of this in the archives?

From as early as the 1400s there was a system of poor relief available in the Low Lands. This usually took on the form of little clusters of small houses on the premises of a church or a convent. These were called "hofjes" (lit. courtyard, because they used to be arranged around a little yard with common facilities such as the latrines). These houses were appointed by the church to selected poor and elderly people. Staying was free but required impeccable behavior from the residents. Yard doors were closed at ten o'clock in the evening, church visits were compulsory, no alcohol was permitted within the premises as was drunkenness or any other kind of frivolous behaviour.

Over time, the "hofjes" were mainly reserved for poor and/or elderly women. From the 1500s on poor and elderly men could take shelter at the "oudemannenhuis" (lit. old men's house). These were mainly erected because practice proved that elderly men were less capable of properly taking care of themselves as was required in a "hofje".  At the "oudemannenhuizen" these men not only got a free bed, but also free meals and clothes. These old men's houses were also kept by the church or a convent and required the same impeccable behavior from it's inhabitants as the "hofjes" did.

Slightly less poor people that wished to be looked after in a more comfortable way than at the old men's house, could buy themselves into a so-called "proveniershuis" (lit. charity house).  The care was similar to that of an old men's house but the beds, food and clothing were all of a slightly better quality.

This system worked quite well until the Renaissance. Until then, the rich hoped to buy themselves a place in heaven by giving generously to the church's charity works. However, the Reformation introduced the idea that a place in heaven could not be bought through charity. Little by little the care for the poor was taken over by municipalities which were funded by the rich and middle classes which saw it as their moral duty to take care of the less fortunate. This resulted in the 1600s in the founding of the so-called "huiszittenhuizen" besides the already existing municipal poor houses. "Huiszittenhuizen" (lit. stay at home houses) provided relief in the form of food and fuel to those people that were able to provide with their own shelter but lacked the money to buy the rest of their basic necessities.

The relief offered by "huiszittenhuizen" was available to both men and women regardless of their faith (which was a new idea!). They could mainly be found in the big cities and they usually kept quite meticulous records of whom they provided with bread in summer and bread and fuel in winter. Most records cover roughly the early 1800s. If your ancestors lived in a big Dutch city and the head of family had humble or unsteady work such as season work or work at the docks, it is worth checking these registers. Especially if they had many children, in which case chances are that the money earned was not by large enough to feed that many mouths.

Some families pop up in the registers year after year, while others only do so occasionally. When people are removed from the register often a reason is given (many times this was the death of the person in question). These records are a valuable source in getting a more detailed idea of how poor your ancestors actually were. If your ancestors are from Amsterdam, you are lucky, since this city has indexed and scanned its "huiszittenhuizen" registers and put them online here (small fees apply to see the actual scans, but you can browse the index for free): Huizittenhuizen registers Amsterdam .