Dr Louise Falcini and Dr Peter Collinge introduce their new essay collection ‘Providing for the Poor: The Old Poor Law, 1750-1834’, the research for which is supported by the AHRC-funded project ‘Small Bills and Petty Finance: co-creating the Old Poor Law’.
This innovative approach to understanding public welfare in eighteenth and nineteenth centuries uses the largely under-explored historical evidence of bills and receipts which were given to overseers of the poor by business- and tradesmen.
Peter and Louise’s edited collection, published in late August 2022, is the 13th title in the Society’s New Historical Perspectives series for early career historians, with the Institute of Historical Research and University of London Press. As with all books in the series, Providing for the Poor. The Old Poor Law, 1750-1834 is available in print and as a free Open Access download.
In the late afternoon of Tuesday 19 October 1756 a small group of men made their way to a local public house, known as Jones’s. The pub was located just a stone’s throw from the parish church in the small village of East Hoathly in Sussex. The men, all local ratepayers, had been summoned to a vestry meeting the previous Sunday to consider and approve expenditure on the needy poor of their parish.
At the meeting, it was agreed that a recently deserted woman and her six children were to be allowed half a bushel of flour per week, and two elderly men were given firewood to see them through the coming winter. More controversially, the vestry agreed to pay off a debt to the local miller run up by one of their impoverished parishioners. Scenes like this were played out across the country as thousands of parishes, rural and urban alike, sought to make provision for their poor, elderly, or infirm inhabitants.
Collectively, the contributors ask: Who was responsible for the poor and in what capacity? What was the extent, nature and duration of the relief given? And who, other than the poor, benefited from or participated in the process and with what agency?
The welfare processes of the long eighteenth century have left traces in a rich archive of parochial, personal, and governmental material. Our volume of essays, Providing for the Poor. The Old Poor Law, 1750-1834, draws on these documents to offer new insights into the workings of the parish, economic relationships across the wider community and the shift in the administration of the Old Poor Law. Collectively, the contributors ask: Who was responsible for the poor and in what capacity? What was the extent, nature and duration of the relief given? And who, other than the poor, benefited from or participated in the process and with what agency?
The authors use as their starting point one of the most extensive, and yet under-explored, classes of historical evidence, the tens of thousands of bills and receipts that passed from shopkeepers and service providers into the hands of overseers of the poor. The presence, absence or opaque nature of these ephemeral documents in the historic record offer opportunities to provide different yet interconnected essays on the paupers, administrators and suppliers of the welfare systems of eighteenth-century England.
Part I of the volume focuses on the recipients of welfare. This granular exploration of paupers and vagrants highlights the lived experiences of the poor. This is particularly so in the opening essay, ‘Accounting for illegitimacy: parish politics and the poor’, in which Louise Falcini unpicks the circumstances surrounding a coercive marriage. As she examines the micro-politics of rural poverty, Louise suggests that economic implications for small rural parishes played an important role in the management and resolution of cases of unmarried motherhood.
The second essay, ‘Clothing the poor’ by Elizabeth Spencer, examines a much broader swathe of the poor by considering the clothing, textiles and haberdashery supplied to paupers in specific parishes in Cumberland and Staffordshire. Spencer examines the practices concerned with the acquisition and distribution of clothing through parochial workhouses and the local overseer of the poor, providing insights into parishes and local their economies.
In the final essay in this section, ‘Vagrancy, poor relief and the parish’, Tim Hitchcock continues his work on vagrants and vagrancy by considering the nature of legislation and its implementation at the end of the long eighteenth century. While internal migration continued at pace, aided by the ad hoc payments of local vestries, Hitchcock suggests that the records reflect a growing focus on policing local disorder, particularly after the passage of the 1822 Vagrancy Act.
Part II of the volume concerns ‘Providers and Enablers and their Critics’. In ‘Women, business and the Old Poor Law’ Peter Collinge begins with and examination of women as suppliers and providers of goods, considering their level of engagement with parochial authorities while highlighting the Poor Law system as a significant consumer of goods and services. Next, Alannah Tomkins’ chapter, ‘The overseers’ assistant: taking a parish salary, 1800–1834’ considers the life-courses of assistant overseers, in a system that was beginning to acknowledge the need for professionalisation with the provision of paid administrative officials. Finally, the last essay in this middle section examines mismanagement, neglect and suffering in two specific parishes. Asking, ‘Who cares?’, Samantha Shave uses the opportunity to reflect on a greater range of individuals as important and influential in the negotiations over poor relief.
‘Small scale’ crowdsourcing together with the co-creation of numerous biographies and subject specific pieces … provide new methodological approaches and research possibilities in histories of the Old Poor Law.
Underpinning the book is research conducted as part of an AHRC-funded project ‘Small Bills and Petty Finance: co-creating the Old Poor Law’. This was undertaken in partnership with three county archive services, two universities and numerous archival research volunteers spread across record offices in Cumbria, Staffordshire and Sussex. The final section in the volume consists of an essay by Falcini and Collinge — ‘Public histories and collaborative working’ — reflecting on the processes, practicalities and wider implications of collaborative working. It suggests that this form of ‘small scale’ crowdsourcing together with the co-creation of numerous biographies and subject specific pieces, most written and researched by our volunteers, provide new methodological approaches and research possibilities in histories of the Old Poor Law. We have included several of these short pieces or interludes in the volume, interspersed between chapters. They reflect the quality of research and writing undertaken throughout the project by our ‘citizen historians’.
Additional blogposts can be found at The Poor Law – Small Bills and Petty Finance 1700-1834, www.thepoorlaw.org
The dataset of goods and services supplied under the Poor Law can be found at Small Bills and Petty Finance, https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.6610414
About the Authors
Dr Louise Falcini is social and cultural historian with a particular focus on the poor and marginalized in the long eighteenth century.
Her broader research interests include public history, archives and the technologies and infrastructure of co-production. She is a research associate attached to the Sussex Humanities Lab at the University of Sussex.
Dr Peter Collinge is a historian, researcher and public speaker and a post-doctoral researcher on the AHRC-funder project ‘Small Bills and Petty Finance: Co-creating the history of the Old Poor Law’.
He has published articles on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century businesswomen, the grocery and malt trades, workhouse gardens, health, leisure and tourism, and the publishing trade.
About the Royal Historical Society’s ‘New Historical Perspectives’ series
New Historical Perspectives is the Royal Historical Society’s Open Access book series for Early Career Historians, published with the Institute of Historical Research and University of London Press.
For more on the series, what it offers, and how to submit a proposal, please see the NHP page of the Society’s website.
The Poets Laureate of the Long Eighteenth Century, 1668-1813. Courting the Public is the fourteenth title published in the NHP series. Other monographs and edited collections appearing in 2022 include:
- Charlotte Berry, The Margins of Late Medieval London, 1430-1540 (February 2022)
- Sarah Fox,Giving Birth in Eighteenth-Century England (April 2022)
- Leo Shipp, The Poets Laureate of the Long Eighteenth Century, 1668-1813. Courting the Public (August 2022)
- Stephen Mullen, The Glasgow Sugar Aristocracy: Scotland and Caribbean Slavery, 1775-1838 (forthcoming, October 2022)
HEADER IMAGE: Detail from Thomas Rowlandson, ‘A Select Vestry’ (1806), The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, Acc. No: 59.533.959, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public domain.