As the contents of today's newspapers, radio and television programmes show, there is never any shortage of people prepared to moan and complain about their lot on nearly every subject under the sun, be it an annual holiday, or the latest electronic toy at Christmas.

Our ancestors were not so lucky. For some of them, being unable to afford food or shelter was the problem. It was not unknown for some of the destitute to starve to death.

The many paupers and vagrants passing along the Great North Road, which ran through Barnet and Finchley to London, were a particularly vulnerable group. Oliver Twist is a reminder of those times.

Local records reveal the depth of need, and include: To burying a poor unknown boy, six pence, and a box for putting him in, four pence,' and For burying an unknown woman found frozen in the High Road, one shilling'.

Because the workhouse was a public institution, paupers admitted there had their belongings catalogued as a precaution against allegations of theft. Such records are an invaluable source of historical information.

When Charles Baldwin died in 1853, the worldly possessions of his entire family (wife and two children) were: two mattresses, three sheets, one iron pot, one plate, two spoons, two trestles (for use with a board to make a table), two cups, one knife and one fork. They had no chair or bed, and no blanket, and would have presumably eaten straight from the pot.

In 1780, in Hadley, Jonathan Bone had one coat, two pairs of breeches, two shirts and two pairs of stockings (no shoes). Jonathan Scott was luckier; he had a waistcoat and pair of shoes. Ruth Mimms, aged 13, had a shirt, two pairs of shoes, one pair of stockings, one apron, one house dress and one handkerchief. Her mother had obviously gone without to help her daughter, because Mrs Mimms had only one shirt and one pair of stockings.

These were the days before old age pensions and social security. You worked, or starved. The workhouse was the end of the line for many. Its records list the occupations and ages of inmates: Mary Larman, 82, blind; Henry Row, 80, past work; Christopher House, 66, a cripple; George Lowing, 15, friendless; James Woodward, 18, no home, living in a hedge.

Against this depressing picture it is only fair to recognise the efforts that went into the relief of the poor - in earlier days by the church and later by various Poor Laws which made modest provision for the destitute and sick in their homes or workhouses.

Almshouses are an interesting aspect of private charity providing relief for the poor. Our borough is particularly rich in such buildings, each with its own fascinating history.