Writing the Lives of the English Poor, 1750s-1830s 
by Steven King.
McGill, 480 pp., £27.99, February 2019, 978 0 7735 5649 2
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Frances Soundy​ lived in Battersea. She had several children and a husband who periodically disappeared. Off and on, throughout the 1820s, she wrote to the church wardens and overseers of the parish of Pangbourne in Berkshire asking for money. One son needed shoes, another clothes; the rent was due; debts had mounted. Mrs Soundy was apologetic: ‘Honerable Gentilmen I ham sorry to have the misfortchin of havin the unplesent nessesity of making application unto you for relefe I ham sorry to say my husband as left me a gain with 3 small children goin the fortnight and will not give me one farthen to by them a bit of bred.’ In January 1824 Mr Soundy was back – but he ‘ad the misfortune of having his thumb smashed all to peasess so that he can not work’. On another occasion he fell from a barge. Her eldest son couldn’t find work so she was supporting him and his wife and child. The entire household was ill: ‘could i have kept my family from starvacion i would not have trobeled you’; ‘think wot a Mother must feel in seeing her children starving and naked and not lay in her power to elivat their suferings.’ She pawned her clothes. In February 1829 her landlord of 22 years threatened to throw them out because she couldn’t pay the rent she owed, 14 shillings; she appreciated that the landlord was poor himself. Her grown daughter was dying; how would she pay for the funeral? The eldest son vanished (‘gorn to the south amaraky or vandemans land’), leaving his wife and child on her hands. She had earned ‘a trifell’ by her ‘needell’, but she was old, her sight was bad. She had given away everything; she was desperate. Every letter begins with apologies and includes humble and sincere (‘sinsare’) thanks; ‘it is not with Plasure that I trobell you but with sorrow,’ Mrs Soundy writes – and with sorrow one reads it.

The Soundy family were well known in Battersea. According to the parish authorities they ‘all bear a very good name’; overseers of Battersea wrote to Pangbourne testifying to the truth of their distress. The Soundys were poor but they were not feckless, and they weren’t vagrants. Having been long settled in Battersea they had no wish to take themselves back to Pangbourne, but by the terms of the Old Poor Law of 1601, with amendments in the 1660s and 1690s, they ‘belonged’ to Pangbourne, where they began (they may even have had a settlement certificate to prove it, though few such certificates survive). The ratepayers of Pangbourne were legally required to ensure that the Soundys did not starve to death. The ratepayers of Battersea would provide so long as Pangbourne met the bill.

The settlement laws decreed that everybody belonged somewhere. The parish was the administrative unit and every parish had its church warden and overseers whose job was to raise taxes locally and distribute relief. These officials had discretion over welfare payments. A rich City of London parish might not mind keeping up a small annual pension to a widow in Shropshire; parishes that were more pressed – like St George the Martyr in Southwark, which included several debtors’ prisons with their collateral burdens of wives and children lodging nearby – had to weigh up their choices: they could give casual relief, or insist that claimants return to their home parish where they could be more cheaply supported, perhaps in a workhouse or ‘pauper farm’. Returning inconvenient dependants was not without cost, however: the home parish would bear the costs of removal but the host parish still had to visit, assess and write letters (and find the cheapest means of conveying them before the introduction of the penny post in 1840).

Such arrangements, which stayed in place until the New Poor Law of 1834, generated considerable correspondence. In the decades leading up to 1834, they also generated significant income for lawyers, as settlement law became more technical and complex. In records offices all over the country lie assortments of relevant manuscripts: letters from the poor, petitions, sworn statements, advocates’ letters, letters between overseers and wardens within and between parishes, vestry reports and discussions. Selective studies of these collections by social historians and economists over the past half-century have given us a rich historiography that shows the wide-ranging effects of the Old Poor Law – which isn’t the same as saying that there is scholarly consensus. Steven King is one of a number of people who have for many years done the hard labour of trawling for and transcribing the scrappy – ‘fugitive’ is the word he uses, with its connotations of elusiveness, oppression and secrecy – letters from and about the poor, attempting to recover ‘the pauper experience’ by charting the process of requesting relief. King is less interested in how much money might be given than in finding out ‘how claimants might exercise agency in a system that notionally afforded them none’ and how they deployed their knowledge of the system in shaping their appeals.

There were, legally, three categories of pauper: the able-bodied/deserving poor, who wanted to work and perhaps did but weren’t able to earn enough for ‘the necessaries of life’; the ‘idle’ poor, who could but wouldn’t work; and the old, ill or young who were ‘impotent’ and therefore deserving. In all three categories there were people who navigated what has been called the ‘makeshift economy’ and ‘mixed economy’ that underpinned welfare: charity, loans, pawn shops, casual work, begging, theft. (The 1601 law was designed specifically to discipline and punish beggars and thieves while supporting the deserving poor.) Despite the huge diversity of practice revealed by the letters, King identifies some distinct patterns. To begin with, and in his view surprisingly, the language of ‘rights’ – the right to receive or obligation to give relief – is almost completely absent from pauper letters, vestry minutes and overseers’ correspondence. There is one exception: the right to seek support during and after childbirth. Sophia Curchin, writing for ‘a Trifle more a week’ during her confinement, assumed that ‘every one of feeling will allow it a shocking thing to want at such a time as I expect very shortly.’ In place of a language of rights the poor used the measure of ‘deservingness’ to establish their eligibility – though King notes Alexandra Shepard’s caution that the divide between industrious and idle, deserving and undeserving, was ‘paper-thin’. There were many ways of showing deservingness: demonstrating a reluctance to apply to the parish at all; expressing sympathy for the better off. One man with 12 children, eight of them at home, asked for an allowance of three shillings a week to see him through the winter: ‘I have done the best I could to keep from the Parish as I know how hard it is to pay Poors Rates.’ Dignity and character (‘My Carricktor will Bear Looking into’) underwrote deservingness. Like ‘rights’, the word ‘dignity’ was rarely used, but in the grey areas of entitlement there was what King calls ‘an alternative language’ used by claimants and advocates that evoked the suffering that poverty inflicted. There was a shared sense that maintaining dignity – not to go naked, not to be utterly degraded – was the job of any parish whose ratepayers were not a ‘very hardened set of people’ (like the ratepayers of Carlisle, who had allowed a sick man to continue in such distress that his bedding was simply ‘filthy rags not fit for a dog kennel’).

A parish could feel shame, but that too might be paper-thin when it came to setting the rates. In theory the right to relief was legally enforceable but there was no provision for inspection or regulation, which led to great local flexibility. Some argue that there were regional differences between what are sometimes described as ‘welfare republics’: the north and west seem to have been less generous than the south and east of England, and Wales was notoriously mean; but with incomplete source materials such judgments are complex. All parishes operated a delicate balance between potentially extraordinary demand and limited resources. Whether and how much to pay out was matter for negotiation. Nobody really understood the law, so custom tended to shape practice and officials might vary that practice from year to year as they saw fit.

Applying to the parish for relief was rarely done lightly. King gives example after example of letter-writers who had struggled with impossible circumstances before making an appeal: George Hailes, whose wife had died 16 months earlier, in childbirth ‘of her Twenty Second Child’, leaving him with their large family and without any employment, can stand for all of those. For most people it was a worsening illness or some other unexpected event – an unpayable bill, debts or rent arrears – that ‘catapulted them into a relationship with the poor law’. Reluctance might be a rhetorical trope, but given the obstacles to obtaining relief and the very small sums generally dispensed, as well as the parlous situations described, reluctance rings true. George Cleaver, aged 67, whose wife of 79 had suffered a stroke three years earlier, had been trying to go on earning enough for ‘common necessaries’ while at the same time caring for her in her incapacity, but was eventually ‘under the disagreeable necessity of thus addressing you under the aforemention’d circumstances’, for which he was sorry. ‘But as honest poverty is no disgrace,’ Cleaver added,

I make bold to solicit your kindness to take into consideration our case and hopeing you will be so good as to allow me if it is but sufficient to pay my rent you know I have been a poor Man all my life in this Town about 30 years & never troubled you for any thing before nor would not now.

Thomas Lomax felt his misfortune ‘a daily source of grief’; John Stafford’s family were shoeless, workless, creditless and hopeless, ‘reduced to the lowest extremity’, by the time he put pen to paper in ‘painful anxiety’. Men resolved that if helped they would find work, women assured ‘the gentlemen’ they would manage somehow, the sick and old pointed out they would die soon and not trouble the parish further. The sick were in general more successful than other claimants for parish relief, but success was a slight thing.

The Old Poor Law didn’t oblige parishes to recognise the sick poor as ‘deserving’, but they realised that help during illness could save money later. Economy, timeliness of action and fair dealing were elements of the balancing act understood on both sides: ‘Please to Observe as I Do Not Want to Put you to any Unnessary Expence But something must be done,’ John Sargent writes to his Gloucestershire parish. The scope and scale of medical welfare in this period hasn’t attracted much attention but King has argued elsewhere (in Sickness, Medical Welfare and the English Poor, 1750-1834) that the situation was probably better under the Old Poor Law than the New. Local studies suggest a willingness to pay for midwives, false limbs, rent arrears due to sickness, fuel, nursing and even stays in medical institutions, though some, such as the overseer of Rothersthorpe, were overwhelmed: ‘We are caught in an endless tide of lunatics and idiots for which our rates are quite insufficient.’ What to do with the mad? All the options involved ongoing costs: asylum, home care, boarding out, the workhouse. Epidemics of cholera, measles, whooping cough and scarlet fever swept across classes. Some parishes paid to build cholera hospitals. In 1796 the Swanage vestry wanted to pay to inoculate everybody against smallpox. When John Brooker, a painter, explained that his sickness had arisen from his trade, he took for granted that he would be understood: his was ‘a business you well know is very pernicious to most Men that follow it’. What people ‘well’ knew, even if they didn’t know it was lead poisoning, was a strong basis for a claim.

Poor relief was never meant to be more than a supplement to family care, charity and casual work. By 1650 half the population depended on wages from labour – and labour wasn’t always available or possible. The poor law itself provided some: women were paid for nursing care, for sitting with the sick and for assisting in funeral preparations. What it felt like to be desperate or what the ‘patchwork of parochial practice’ meant for those who resorted to it can only tentatively be interpreted. Recording was haphazard, preservation largely accidental: the archive in Kirkby Lonsdale boasts 1600 letters, but for the whole of Devon only 252 survive. Widows, abandoned wives, men with many children ‘half Naked & Very Barley fed’ presented themselves as people of worth whose distress must speak to like-minded others: ‘Place it to the feeling heart if any thare be how a man is to soport 9 Children all small Or Nearly; with his Bare Wages.’ How indeed, especially in recurring times of ‘want of trade’. Each plea for immediate relief opens a window onto the systemic problem and is a reminder of how little, historically, has been known about labourers’ lives.

Medical welfare and care of the old dominated spending in the last decades of the Old Poor Law, coinciding with what some have described as a crisis after 1800 in which the destitute lost much of the legitimacy they had earlier enjoyed. The elderly managed to maintain their legitimacy and would likely have continued to be supported within communities, until they lost out under the New Poor Law, with its national system of prison-like workhouses. King disagrees with Dorothy Marshall’s judgment that practice lagged well behind theory in the day-to-day workings of the earlier system – he thinks more help was being provided than Marshall suggests – and contests Sydney and Beatrice Webb’s characterisation of the poor: the letters, while deferential, don’t suggest that dependence made them craven. At local and national level between 1780 and the 1830s, bad harvests, rising prices, unemployment, population growth, increasing literacy, the effects of war and political mobilisation meant rioting, rural unrest, petitions, rallies, machine-breaking – all bringing the wider question of social stability and order into vestry politics. Decent ratepayers viewed sick and aged paupers as their moral responsibility; their plight generated advocacy from neighbours, clerics, doctors, magistrates and even gentry. Still, local people knew who had the power to disburse funds. Overseers’ accounts are generally laconic documents but here and there we learn of petitioners’ threats to burn down this person’s house or shoot that man. In East Yorkshire, Robert Sharp had a stone thrown at him by a female pauper who had been ‘stopped in her pay’.

The poor, King insists, were not ‘other’: they belonged. Even after 1800 they ‘remained fellow creatures’ inside a social order that gave them a degree of agency. One significant element of belonging concerns literacy. The vast majority of letters were written by those who signed them, not by scribes. Even the most marginal and least literate of the population were able to write in some fashion and understood the importance of making themselves and their stories knowable through words on the page. Further, they were able to acquire the necessary raw materials: King devotes a chapter to ‘mundane articles’ including paper, ink and pens, and the practicalities of sending and receiving letters. King’s study of these letters leads him to conclude that the timing of mass literacy, the democratisation of writing, has to be pushed back to the 1820s at least, though that still seems late when you consider that in 1740 Samuel Richardson constructed an entire novel in letters supposedly written by a 16-year-old servant girl, Pamela, to her impoverished parents.

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