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Irish Pension Records – Census Search Forms

An unlikely but useful genealogy resource and census subsitute.

Census search forms


The Old Age Pensions Act 1908 introduced a non-contributory pension for 'eligible' people aged 70 and over. It came into law in January 1909 across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Patrick Street, Cork, early 20th century.
Postcard of Patrick Street, Cork, around the time pensions were introduced in Ireland.
To be eligible, applicants had to have an income of less than £31 and 10shillings per annum (£31.50), and had to 'be of good character'.

Those disqualified included people in receipt of Poor Relief, institutionalised 'lunatics', and anyone with a prison record within ten years of applying.

Discretionary refusals could also be given to those who had been convicted of drunkenness or those who, while fit and able, had a history of 'habitual failure to work'.

During the first three months of 1909, 261,668 applications were made in Ireland. By 31 March 1910, 180,974 Irish pensions were in force.

Poverty in Ireland

The Journal of the Royal Statistical Society published in December 1910 suggested that the percentage of take up among those eligibile for the Old Age Pension 'could probably be accepted as approximately indicative of the relative poverty of the population'.

The level in England and Wales was 44.7%. In Scotland it was 53.8%.

In Ireland it was 98.6%, once again demonstrating the plight of the island and central government’s lack of investment in it. The pensioner with an income of less than £21 received the full pension of 5s a week. The value diminished by 1 shilling a week for every extra £2.12.6 of annual income. An income of £31.10.0 per annum meant no pension was payable.

The pension was paid on a Friday and was administered by the Post Office.

The genealogical value of Irish 'pension' records

Apart from being an interesting social development and of huge importance to the elderly living in poverty, the introduction of the Old Age Pension seems, at first glance, to have little to recommend itself to the average genealogy researcher.

The surviving documents are not really Irish pension records, nor old age pension applications.

They should be known as 'census search forms used to establish eligibility for a pension'.

But that's a bit of a mouthful so they've become known colloquially and erroneously as Irish pension records.

In England, Wales and Scotland that is probably still the case, but Ireland’s situation was unique.

State registration of births did not begin until 1864 in Ireland (much later than in the rest of Great Britain), so would-be pensioners had no official documentation to prove when they were born and how old they were. A system needed to be established to substantiate such claims.

The chosen method was for a search of the 1841 and 1851 census returns (both still in existence when the Pension was introduced) for documentary evidence of the claimant’s age.

The claimant had to provide their parents' names and their residence in March 1841/1851 (when the censuses were taken).

Click image for full view of a census search form
(an unsuccessful attempt)
Census search form/Irish pension application/DenisSantry

They also had to state the age they believed themselves to have been in the appropriate year.

Pensions Officers sent the particulars of the claimant on a Form 37 to be checked against the census for the townland or address provided to see if the claimant (many of whom were children or young adults at the time) could be discovered and his/her eligibility confirmed.

Both the 1841 and 1851 censuses were held at the Public Record Office in Dublin, where officials carried out the checks and returned their findings to the local Pensions Board.

When, as frequently happened, a search could not find the claimant, the form 37 was returned with 'not found' or 'no trace' written on it.

But many searches were successful, and these can often provide outstanding genealogy material.

Some officials added the names and ages of every person living in the claimant's household at the time of the census. Others, unfortunately, merely confirmed the recorded age of the claimant.

The 'green forms'
Five shillings a week
The level of benefit – not more than 5 shillings a week for a single person and 7 shillings for a married couple – had deliberately been set low for two reasons.

First, to encourage people of working age to set aside sufficient funds for their own retirement. And second, to be of value to the very poorest members of society.

While not overly generous, the full pension of 5/- was a useful sum. In 1909 a labourer's weekly wage was not much more than 10/-.

Some people chose to directly commission (and pay) the Public Record Office to search the old censuses on their behalf. In these cases, the PRO staff filled in what are now known as 'green forms'.

The Green Forms are a completely separate collection to those mentioned above, even though they contain similar information.

The collection originally dated to 1909 but the first five years' of records were eventually pulped. However, the majority of green forms from 1915 to April 1922 survive.

Access to 'Irish pension records'

1. Census Search Form 37s

Most of the Form 37s used by local pension boards are held by PRONI, in Belfast. They relate to people living in Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone at the time of their pension applications and include those who had been born or spent their childhood in other counties. They are also available on microfilm, courtesy of the LDS, in PRONI's self-service microfilm room, and their contents were published in two books by Josephine Masterson (see right-hand column).

An additional collection of Form 37s is held by the National Archives of Ireland, in Dublin, covering most of counties Cavan and Fermanagh.

2. Census Search Green Forms

Ten shillings a week

Ten years after its introduction, the Old Age Pension was increased to 10 shillings a week.

The 'green forms' are also held by the National Archives of Ireland in Dublin. County-by-county indexed books are readily available in the Reading Room.

Several thousand of these green forms have been transcribed privately and made available online at Ireland-Genealogy. Each record contains at least three names – the applicant and his/her mother and father – and many records contain additional names (siblings, grandparents etc) that can help your genealogy research.

Searching is free. To view a full transcript of a record costs GB£2.

Payment is made by PayPal and the results forwarded by email.

Surprisingly, the website doesn't provide a summary of what its database holds. A few years ago it held substantical collections of records for counties Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Galway, Kerry, Kilkenny, Kings, Leitrim and Tyrone, and a few more for counties Limerick, Waterford and Donegal. By Autumn 2013 the geographical spread seems to have extended, and the site says it now holds 200,000 records.

3. Free online access to 'Irish pension records'

The collection of 'census search forms' held by the National Archives of Ireland has been digitised and should shortly be uploaded to the NAI's free-to-view Genealogy website. This is expected to happen before Christmas 2013. The same records will also be made available free of charge on FamilySearch and FindMyPast Ireland. This collection is separate to those held by PRONI.

  • If your ancestors were alive in 1911, shortly after the Irish pension was introduced, check out the Irish census page.



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Irish Military Pensions
The Military Service Pensions Collection was released online in January 2014.

These records relate to military service from 1916 to 1923 in the struggle for Independence by members of the old Irish Republican Army, Cumann na MBann, Na Fianna Eireann and similar organisations.

There are not 'old age pensions', nor pensions awarded on retirement.

You can freely search the records and find out more at Military Archives.


Fraudulent pension claims

All systems are open to abuse, and the late start to civil registration in Ireland provided the argument for many of those who chose to brazen out a fraudulent application.

However it is worth bearing in mind that while some may have lied about their date of birth, many elderly people simply did not know exactly when they were born.

It had never been particularly important before. They had a rough idea of how old they were, but nothing precise.

However, there is no point denying that many bogus claims were submitted.

In the year after the first pensions were paid out, some 38,495 pensions were revoked.


 

Top Ten Bubbles

See my personal selection of the very best free online databases for Irish genealogy research. Click image.

 


Pension novelty


The introduction of the pension was an enormous leap in care for the elderly in Ireland.

Up to 1909, what little care was provided by the state came via the Poor Relief (which carried a stigma) or the dreaded Workhouse.

Such was the pension's novelty that long queues formed outside Post Offices on the first day of payments, as families, friends and neighbours ferried their elderly into town to collect their cash, and large groups of spectators gathered to watch them do so.

In Ennis, Co Clare, the crowds and queues grew so big and excited that the police were called in to keep control.


 

Published in book form

The PRONI collection of so-called Irish pension records were published by Josephine Masterson in two books:

  • Ireland 1841/1851 Census Abstracts (Republic of Ireland)
  • Ireland 1841/1851 Census Abstracts (Northern Ireland)
The 'Republic of Ireland' title is rather misleading because it relates to pension applicants who were living in Northern Ireland at the time of their application but who had lived elsewhere when the 1841 and 1851 censuses were taken.

These two books are widely available in genealogical research libraries around the world.

 



 

Pounds, shillings and pence

In 1909, Ireland's currency was British Sterling. One pound (£) was divided into 20 shillings (20/-), and shillings were divided into 12 pennies (12d).

The sum of five pounds, ten shillings and 6 pennies was usually written as £5.10s.6d, while a sum of just ten shillings and 6 pennies was more usually shown as 10/6 (and informally known as 'ten and six').

Both Britain and Ireland went metric in 1971, disposing of shillings and pennies but keeping the pound (or punt, in Irish). Each shilling became five pence (5p).

The Republic of Ireland converted to the Euro in 2002. Northern Ireland still uses Sterling. More about Ireland's money systems.

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