‘…we may lie and die in a land of plenty…’: The Victorian poor in their own words
In all but the most specialist accounts of Victorian histories the poor are often represented through generalisations, graphs or summed up in ‘averaging’ paragraphs. More detailed work might look at the experiences of individual poor people through pulling together accounts from contemporary newspapers, the letters of the wealthy, or poor law officials and government inspectors who write about the poor. Few historians have looked at accounts of poor people’s lives written by the poor themselves. There are good reasons for this: many poor people were unable to write and many letters undoubtedly do not survive; and the letters that survive are scattered across a great many archives, usually unlisted in large collections. This talk will concentrate on a collection of such pauper letters, statements and petitions which demonstrate the concerns, thoughts and feeling of the poor themselves.
Paul Carter is the principal domestic records specialist in the Advice and records knowledge department at The National Archives. His research and publication interests include early labour movements and popular politics.
Yeah, so what we’re going to do over the next kind of three quarters of an hour, because I want to leave a little bit at the end, is talk about records that the poor left themselves. I’ve been working recently on a set of Poor Law records that we hold here at TNA [The National Archives]. Now I’ll kind of step through that so you can see where the records are coming from and how they’re arranged.
This is the kind of thing that I’m going to be talking about, this is a pauper letter. This is a letter written by an individual from Wolstanton and Burslem [Union Workhouse]. It’s a man called John Cartwright and he writes in to the Poor Law right at the end of 1848 so I think it’s still going to be the Commission. And he says that one of the staff at the workhouse has threatened him with violence and he did that in front of another member of staff and that was the workhouse master.
And he’s raised this with the guardians of the Union and the guardians have decided it’s not very important and they refused to investigate this. And Cartwright, not being very impressed with this, now writes to London, to the authorities in London and says, ‘I’d Like this to be investigated, this is not right, this is not right’.
And so you get a number of things from that. One is that Cartwright is an individual who is confident enough to raise issues with the local guardians and he’s also confident enough to put pen to paper and write to London. And he also feels strongly enough that this is an issue that should be investigated; the fact that he’s poor and the fact that he’s in the workhouse, doesn’t mean that somehow he is not very important. So there’s a few things that we can glean from these kinds of records outside of just what it says. Now, in saying that…so that’s the kind of record that we’re going to be looking at this afternoon.
But what I do want to say is that…a little bit of background; there’s not a great deal on pauper letters for the new Poor Law, from 1834 onwards which is what I’m going to concentrate on. There’s some things on the old Poor Law, there’s Thomas Sokoll’s book and he’s just published this -I say just, look 2001 amazing how time flies. But his book, he’s done Essex and he’s been in the local county record office and he’s looked through the parish materials and he’s found quite a rich seam of letters, because we might feel that these are things that might appear in handfuls, when actually they appear in hundreds and actually thousands. It’s where they are.
And what he’s done, he’s concentrated on the old Poor Law. And in his book… and what his book is, it’s a transcript of the letters. So he’s got like an introductory chapters, but what these are, are transcripts of the letters of poor people who were writing to claim relief in Essex.
But what he says is, the fact that they kind of run out round about 1835 to 1837 in his book, that not because there aren’t any more pauper letters, it’s because something happens administratively and the letters simply go elsewhere. And what he suggests is that these letters, which apparently exist in considerable numbers – and he’s an old Poor Law historian rather than a new Poor Law one – He says for these you need to go to the correspondence of Assistant Poor Law Commissioners Inspectors; the administrative bodies established in 1834. And he doesn’t really look at those and it’s those that we’re going to look at.
So it’s not that there are no Poor Law records, it’s just that they’re not going to be here and that’s just for administrative reasons that will become apparent as we go through this.
In 1834, the way in which relief is managed changes and it changes quite dramatically. Prior to 1834 the eight/nine thousand parishes or so across England and Wales were responsible for raising money and then spending that money on the management of their local poor. From 1834 onwards that changes and it changes as a result of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. And under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, a new administrative body comes into being and that’s the Poor Law Commission that’s based at Somerset House in London. So you have a new administrative, kind of oversight body from 1834 onwards that’s missing before then… nothing like it is in existence prior to 1834.
So what you have is you have the Poor Law Commissioners themselves, you have a varying number of Assistant Poor Law Commissioners, later Poor Law Inspectors, and later the local government inspectors, their name changes over a period.
And here, we’ve got Poor Law Union Board of Guardians, these are local government bodies. So you’ve got a new national government body at the top and then you’ve got 640-650 or so, local government bodies and that’s the Poor Law Unions themselves. And whereas in the past, each parish had responsibility for the raising of money and the maintaining of their poor, we now get these parishes brought together for Poor Law purposes.
So we’re in Kew today and Kew, this parish, would have been part of the Richmond Poor Law Union from June 1836 onwards. So now what you have are two new bureaucracies, the Poor Law Commission and the hundreds of Poor Law Unions. So that’s the administrative change from 1834.
So what we have in 1834 then is a new administrative body at the top, administrative bodies throughout the whole of England and Wales; Scotland and Ireland are separate and have their own legislation and I’m not going to speak about those today.
But one of the key aspects of this is it’s a workhouse system and it’s a deterrent workhouse system. And what I mean by that… for those who’ve seen this example before, I do apologise, but I’m just wondering if Mr Heather, who is sat at the back, would care to join me at the front. There we are Chris, now you had no idea that this was coming. This is Chris Heather. Hey-up Chris.
Chris is a poor man, its 1838 so the systems been in place for a couple of years and he’s making an application for relief. Unfortunately, the bottom has fallen out of the archival trade and Chris, Chris is unemployed and requiring relief. So he’s has made an application to me, a pillar of the community and part of the authorities who’s managing poverty in the Richmond Poor Law Union. Now what we’re going to do with Chris though is that, whereas previously, the parish might have afforded Chris a few shillings to get onto his feet, we’re not going to do that now. What we’re going to do is offer Chris the workhouse. He’s an able bodied labourer, nothing wrong with him, just that he’s not got a job.
So what’s going to happen now is that Chris is going to look at the workhouse, he’s going to make a decision: him, his wife and his children are all going to go in the workhouse. When the able bodied labourer, the male, able bodied labourer goes into the workhouse, he goes as a family. So it’s all or nothing kind of thing. And Chris has to make a decision and that decision is based around, ‘How poor do you feel? How poor do you feel?’ And Chris might decide ‘I’ll borrow some money’ or ‘We’ll do with less. Each of us will eat a little bit less and there’s less on the bill and we’ll try to get by’, or a little bit of both. And if he does that, I’m fine with that, cos what Chris will do is walk away and by Chris walking away, that rate bill will come down. And if enough ‘Chrises’ walk away, we’ll have got on top of the welfare bill problem. I don’t really care now what happens to Chris, I don’t follow up what’s happening to him; all I know is he’s not claiming relief. And the way that we do this is the particular kind of way.
Just before they bring this in, a report of published at the hands of what’s known as the Poor Law Commission of 1832. And what the Poor Law Commission of 1832 does, is it takes somebody like Chris, puts them up against a wall…it’s not as bad as it sounds this, by the way, I realise how that’s coming over. What we do, 1832-33, -34, the Poor Law commission, which is a separate Poor Law Commission to this one, the Poor Law Commission says, ‘How do we get this down? How do we make sure we can get this down?’ What we do is, we take an independent labourer, he’s not a pauper in this occasion, he’s an independent labourer, he works and he earns to get by for him and his family.
And what we’re going to do, we’re going to measure Chris’ standard of living. How much is he paying for rent? What’s the food bill like on an average month? What are his earnings? How much does he bring in? And we’re going to measure sort of like the standard of living for Chris.
What we’re then going to do is we’re going to say for those who now claim relief, after 1834, we’re going to reduce that standard of living in the workhouse. It’s called ‘less eligibility’ and what they mean by that is, kind of, you know, less comfort.
We’re going to make it so that if Chris’ standard of living is here…and Chris, at this point, is actually one of the lowest independent labourer. So it’s not like an average earnings or an average standard of living. We’re going to find those on the lowest and we’re going to say for those who claim relief and go into the workhouse, we’re going to lower that still. And the idea there is to provide for Chris and other poor labourers like him, an incentive. You don’t want to go in the workhouse because it will be below the standard of living of that of the lowest paid independent labourer outside. So, thank you very much Chris, our lowest paid independent labourer outside the workhouse.
So that’s what’s happening in this run-up to 1834. The welfare bill is high; we’ve got to get that down and we’re going to do this in a systematic way. Partly through a new administrative set up, but also through a new set of ideas. And when I say ‘a new set of ideas’, I don’t mean somebody thought it up in 1834, but it’s a new set of ideas allied to this new administrative set-up. Because this means we can provide that test, that workhouse test of the independent labourer, ‘Do you want to come in?’ we can apply that test across the country, because we have a huge central workhouse building program.
If you don’t have workhouses across the country, you can’t test Chris. You can’t say to Chris, ‘How poor do you feel? Do you want to go into the workhouse?’ unless there’s capacity. So part of this is about building capacity for paupers to be inside the workhouse.
Now, the kind of stuff that I was just telling you there about how parishes are swept together…for people who don’t know it, there is a website [www.workhouses.org.uk] run by a guy called Peter Higginbotham, which is a really good first place to go to. And you’ll find that, like there’s an overview map and you can click on that and it will give you the more regional maps and you can then click on any of these and it will tell you which parishes are within which union. And you can, kind of, get a very quick first glance…if you haven’t used it, it a nice place to start, on Peter’s website.
Now then, most records about ordinary people aren’t written by ordinary people. Most of them are written by those who manage the system and historians have used records to look at employment, to look at poor relief expenditure, to look at things like crime and patterns of crime, but most records are therefore written about the poor. They’re written about ordinary people…and when I say poor, I don’t just mean people in workhouses. The phrase, ‘the labouring poor’, kind of represents the huge mass of people in the 1830s-1840s and the decades beyond.
But most records are about them and this is one of them. This is a workhouse inspection report form. So you can see that administratively, it’s quite modern, is the Poor Law Commission. It’s quite modern; they have lots and lots of forms, because they’re trying to get information to come back into the centre in very regular ways.
So from 1847 onwards you get these forms and twice a year there’ll be an inspector that goes round the workhouse with specific questions about numbers in there, whether or not it’s overcrowded, what’s the management of the school like. And in this one you can see some of the inmates have complained about the quantity of food because the inspector would go up to a group of paupers and say, well you know, ‘what’s your experience like at the moment?’ and they would kind of listen back.
You’ve got to remember that, stood next to you, are some of the union officers, some of the people who work in the workhouse. You know, they don’t take you to one side, so you’ve kind of got to have some confidence at all, to say there’s something wrong. And here…I’m afraid this is a bit blurred, but don’t worry too much about that. Here you’ve got this kind of text where he writes in about these people who have complained about the food, he’s then done his own little inspection and he’s decided that the complaints are unfounded; there’s nowhere to take this. So here you’ve got a record and it’s about the poor but it’s not by them, it’s not a letter.
Now the thing is, is there are thousands of letters, petitions, statements and depositions that were written by the poor or, like I said with statements there and depositions, where somebody writes down what it is that individual is saying for that individual to sign.
So the records survive and what I want to say is that poor people were more than willing to raise, either with the local authorities, or with London, a whole host of welfare issues. They complained about being denied relief, they complained that their relief had been cut, they complained of medical neglect, that their wife or their husband or themselves had been badly treated and they also complained of ill treatment, either verbally or physically, which is where we started with John Cartwright’s letter.
This is a letter from Newcastle-under-Lyme complaining about the ill treatment of the children and he talks about, or she talks about, the children coming in and saying that the master had treated him cruelly and got his hands cut to pieces with a cane when he got back. And he’s asking can somebody come and investigate what’s happened here? And in this one he signs it, ‘your respectful servant and inmate’. He doesn’t sign it.
And I would imagine there’s quite a few of those because again, what’s going to happen here is, although the staff aren’t sat next to you as you’re doing this, a bit like the report form, what’s going to happen is that that letter will get sent back to the local guardian to investigate the complaint. So again, it’s about how much confidence…some of them are more petitions than letters.
This is set out as a letter but it’s actually from a number of inmates who sign this and they complain that the existence of convicts far exceeds ours. And he says, you know, if you’re in prison, you get more food than you would do if you were in a workhouse and the complaint there is that you’re being punished for your poverty; that somehow, it’s you being singled out. And so he says, you know, ‘The soup for dinner comprises of little beside rice, potato, swede, turnips and no meat. We have to labour very hard at the mill and that will not maintain our constitution to our employ. We’re kept under lock and key, we’re not helped to talk to our families’. So there’s a whole list of complaints. And here they are confident enough to put their name to this and that might be why they’ve put a number of names. I’ve not put the whole thing up there, but it’s kind of signed off by a number of paupers.
This I think, interestingly enough, comes back to the point this lady here made. This is in Poplar Workhouse: ‘The state and usage of the poor, sick and sore afflicted of this dark and neglected parish’ is what he refers to.
Three inmates are in, charged. They’re not paid; got a number of paupers that were looking after the paupers in the sick ward. Not being paid themselves, they take every advantage of robbing the inmates. Little medical care is taken; the doctor rarely visits. The writer, him or herself, is a cripple and expects to be in the workhouse all of their life. He says, ‘Can we not pass my name on? I’d be a marked man if I did’, and that’s that area of power. Because you’re looking at an institution where some people have an enormous amount of power and others have very little or no power at all.
This is a letter from a man called James Baskeyfield who’s an inmate at Wolstanton and Burslem and he talks about asthma. And he complains about the medical care rather than anything else. He says he’s got asthma, ‘I can’t get medical attention’. Interestingly enough, also in the same set of records, he’s listed ‘a statement of pauperism caused by accidents in mines’ and it seems that’s where his asthma condition has become exacerbated and he is required to go into the workhouse.
I’m going to rack on a little bit. So the letters themselves come from all over the country. I’m just going to go focus now a little bit more narrowly to see what it is you can pull out of these in a bit of detail.
And so, if we went to Peter Higginbotham’s website and we clicked on the North Midlands area here. Going to look at this union here, Basford in Nottinghamshire; it’s on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. And it’s made up of a number of parishes. When I showed you the Richmond one, it only had about four or five parishes in that, but you can get 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 and more parishes in a union. They can be quite big and populous.
So we’re going to just have a quick look then at Basford, in Nottinghamshire and that is that one there; I’ve sort of blown it up here. It’s quite a strange shape in a way because it, kind of… you’re out here but then it loops round and then down and then it comes back up here. So Nottingham is in the middle, it kind of… Nottingham, the city, is separate, but it kind of goes around it, does the Basford Union. And you can see that unions can cross county boundaries, so this is the Derbyshire side.
So let’s have a look at a couple of the letters then from Basford. And as we do that, this is what we need to bear in mind, right: When you have a Poor Law Union set up after the 1834 act… so there’s a union, it’s Basford, that’s the one we’re going to look at…Somerset House. What’s going to happen now, is they’re going to start writing to each other and this’ll be true for every union. Every union. So whichever part of the country you’re interested in, if you find out where the union is, you’ll find that there is material passing backwards and forwards from the locality you’re interested in and the Poor Law Commission in London. And these records look like that. They’re volumes, they’re volumes.
Inside the Poor Law Commission they have a bindery. So as the letters come in, they sort it into union order and then they bind them up at the time. So they bind them up in the 1840s, in the 1850s, in the 1860s. And one of the key things that I kind of take from that is, they’re not later weeded, they’re not later…somebody later on doesn’t go through and sort out what’s useful and what isn’t; they bind them up at the time. So this is pretty much everything for the 19th century. After 1900, unfortunately, most of the material is destroyed in the Second World War; but for the Victorian period you’ve pretty much got everything, unless there’s certain circumstances where something’s destroyed by mistake, by a local fire, something like that. This is the material.
When you open a volume like this, you’ll see what I mean. So although it looks like a book, as soon as you open it, you realise it’s not and actually you’ve got these letters passing between the Poor Law Commission and the local union. So you’ve got these letters going backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Handfuls of letters every week – it’s enormous.
In the main, that’s how the records are organised and shown in the class lists. So you get the name of the union, you get the years that it covers and the reference number for the volume that you might think well that might be worth looking in here. That might be something that I want to look at. I’ve got a person who I know is in the workhouse or I know has fallen on hard times in the 1840s or 1850s so these are the volumes I want to get out.
So they’re bound up, they’re like books, as you go through them you find that there are letters, draft letters, memos, reports, all kinds of stuff in the volumes.
This graph is only there to try to say to you how big this series is. All I’ve done here is…MH is Ministry of Health so people might be aware that our records kind of work in this HO is Home Office, FO is Foreign Office, there’s some more obscure ones I’m sure but MH: Ministry of Health. The Poor Law records were given to the Ministry of Health. The Ministry of Health is not created until 1919 but that’s where the materials are going to be. And all I’ve done is gone MH 1, MH 2, MH 3, MH 4, five, six, seven, eight, [etc]. And then wrote a program that tells me how many, how many volumes, how many pieces are there for each series. And so in this series MH 106 there’s 5456 volumes, or pieces. MH 12: there’s 16743. It’s enormous. It’d fill this room out and more. It’s a huge series; it ranks with the census that anybody who’s looking at any aspect of social history in the Victorian period because just about every subject is in there. It depends what’s happening. If there’s strikes in an area, obviously that impacts on poor relief. If you’ve got a downturn in trade, that impacts on it. Public Health is in there. So it’s an enormous series and that’s going to be quite key when we’re asking the questions, ‘How many pauper letters are there?’ Part of that is going to be around, well how big a series is it that we already know that this stuff is in. So it’s an enormous series.
So let’s have a look at some of the letters within it and just try and analyse what’s going on. Because the Poor Law Commission doesn’t ask the poor to write in, the poor write in off their own bat so to speak. This is a letter from James Stevens and you can see that this is a very respectful letter:
‘Commissioners, Honoured Sirs,
‘I have been wrote to by a friend from New South Wales and he might get his passes paid by government. If you would please to favour me with an answer of how I would do this.
‘Ever, Honoured Sirs, your most obliged and very humble servant.’
So it’s a very, very nice, very polite, deferential kind of letter from James Stevens.
A similar, kind of, humble letter here:
‘We have thought it our duty’…
They’re writing in because they’ve built a house on parish lands and now, under the new Poor Law, the local authorities are now being encouraged to sell off parish lands. And they’re worried that the lands can get sold on with their houses on it. And it can.
So they’re writing in, in a very deferential mode, to say, ‘Perhaps we could purchase those lands, would that be alright?’ And they have managed to get…if I get to it, yeah, here, the various parish officers to underwrite, if you like, the rightness of their claim to purchase this land. And in fact they are allowed to do so. I did look them up in the census and they are just quite poor stockingers, textile workers.
So a lot of the letters can be quite deferential, you know, ‘Dear Sir’, ‘Honoured Sirs’, but they’re not all. They’re not all. And I think one of the reasons for this is the unique position of welfare in England and Wales and that is that it’s a right; it’s not a charity. This is not like Continental Europe of the time. These are rights. You had a right to relief under the old Poor Law. It was redefined in 1834, but it was left as a right. And I think that underpins why, when you compare this with some of the European material that we know about, a lot of the European material is and remains very deferential because you’re actually seeking something to which you don’t have a right.
Here you have a right to relief and although it’s very tiny and there’s all kind of holes in it and it’s certainly not what we would consider a welfare system to be like, that we’d need to make a claim on, it’s still there as a right.
This one here: Samuel Marriott. He starts off, you know:
‘To the Right Honourable Sir, would you have the kindness… ?’
But he then goes on to complain that he’s out of employment and he explains why:
‘I have two motherless child, been left with them for three years and eight months, thrown out of unemployment. Sir, I was compelled to appeal to the parish of Bulwell. Honoured Sir,’…
I’ve written it out as they’ve spelt things here…
‘Honoured Sir, they’ve put me out to work gathering stones. I had to go five miles to work, the same distance back. They gave me seven pence per ton. Sir, to go ten miles per day, give a poor man seven pence a ton and with that I remain in starvation. Sir, the poor man is tossed about worse than any dog.
‘God help the poor man.
‘Samuel Marriott. Bulwell, April 1858.’
This isn’t a letter, this is a petition…I spoke earlier about petitions. This is a petition that was sent to the local newspaper. This is the town of Basford itself; it’s the Basford Union. It’s a huge document; it runs for over a hundred folios. It’s a report and in that report is this petition:
‘We address you in this form, as knowing you to be a friend of the poor as well as the public at large’…
That’s directed to the editor of the local newspaper.
‘Sir, you would not believe, unless you saw it yourself, the oppression used in this place to the inmates. Our feet blackened with those heavy clogs, dirty stockings worn for more than six months without being changed’…
And he goes on and they list a whole host of complaints about the way in which they feel they’re been treated. It’s a copy of the petition and they sign their name around a circle. You can see the clerk who’s copied this has attempted to do this. Where this ‘I’ is, draw the circle round here, then he’s started to put the various people’s name in.
Apart from those who I’ve shared this with, any idea why they might have done that? [Audience member answers: ‘So you can’t identify the leader’.] Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking. It’s that, yeah, it’s a round robin. You can’t know who’s leading this. You can’t put your name on who’s…you might have other reasons for suspecting people, but that’s what I think is going on there, yes.
So we’ve got letters of complaint about being treated badly, we’ve got petitions about being treated badly. This is from a lady called Elizabeth Cobley. So this is lady Elizabeth Cobley, her son has died and her daughter-in-law has died leaving the children, so she’s made claim for relief for the grandchildren and nothing’s happened. So she starts off quite strident. Not ‘Your Honourable Sirs’:
‘You have failed to answer Mr. Allen I am induced to write to you.’
She goes on to say:
‘You must be aware that we cannot do anything for them as owing to the distress of the times’…
Not only that:
‘We have not troubled you for anything more than their bare necessity’…
And she looks forward, so she’s wanting them to forward the cash due. Not charity, not ‘can you see your way’. This money is due and we haven’t received it and therefore, you have failed. And you can see within some of these letters that more strident approach to the way in which people are couching the words that they are sending to those people who are in authority. This isn’t…they’re not writing to their peers here, you’re writing to people in authority but you are asserting rights rather than begging for charity in these instances.
This is a petition from Kidderminster and as you can see here, here are the people who have put their name to it: Thomas Hartley, William Thornhill, James Hardiman, Samuel Smith, all in their 70s, all asking that their complaints be heard and their grievances to be redressed.
It follows on from earlier correspondence of complaints about the food. And here they’re complaining about the cheese, saying its skimmed milk cheese. And they say, ‘we don’t expect to have the best cheese but we expect to have the second best’. Which is a humorous kind of phrase but it’s something saying, ‘We’re not rich, I know we’re not going to get what Lord and Lady Muck get, but that doesn’t mean that we have to have any kind of rubbish. We do expect the next one down. We expect it to be right; we expect it to be edible.’
They also think it a law that all men upwards of 60 get certain indulgences like beer and not half the people are entitled to them here. And they complain about the chaplain; ‘an idle shepherd who neglects his flock’. And they sign off, interestingly enough, they sign off…because if you imagine that you’ve received that and then at the end of it, in a very pointed manor, I say, ‘maybe I need to write to the Home Secretary about this’, you know. And again, it’s…too much to say confrontational, but they’re kind of getting there, you know.
Initially, Thomas Hartley had written in on his own, got nowhere, so he’s now rounded up a collection of people to put the complaints in and ‘unless we get redress, I’ll take it above your head. I don’t think these are things which are charity, these are rights. I’m claiming rights and you’re standing in the way of that.’
This is a letter from Thomas Henshaw, an unemployed framework knitter from the Basford Union. A place called Ilkeston. It starts: ‘Gentlemen, I beg leave most humbly’…But again, he’s not asking for charity, he’s asking for redress; ‘something is wrong and I want you to change it.’ He explains: ‘I’m out of employment, now I’m entirely out of employment, I have a wife and five children, completely destitute of food. I’ve applied to the relieving officer; I’ve also applied to Mr Bennett, the Assistant Overseer. Both of which have refused me. Both of which have refused me.
‘I then applied to Mr Radford, a Magistrate at Smalley, a small village not too far away, who sent a positive order to Mr Bennett to see to my case as I was destitute; according to the 54th clause in the Poor Law Amendment Bill.’
A poor man quoting the law back at those whose job it is to enforce the law: ‘He still refuses to allow me anything so that we may lie and die in a land of plenty. Though I saw a circular some time ago from Mr Chadwick…’ Chadwick is the secretary to the Poor Law Commission‘…stating that you would hold officers responsible for any bad consequence arriving out of such neglect.’
And if you look at the 54th clause, he’s dead right. He’s quoting back to those in authority what their obligations are and what his rights are. It’s not a letter asking for charity, it’s asking for the rules under which you have said apply, make them apply to me. And in fact, they write back to him and they write back to the local guardians saying, ‘Why is this man in this position? Why have you refused an order from the magistrate? He shouldn’t be having to write to us.’ And he actually does receive relief as a result and you see him in the relief lists further on in the year.
So where does that leave us then? Well what it leaves us is that within these MH 12 volumes that I’ve been speaking about, everything has come from there. Everything you’ve seen this afternoon has come from MH 12. All of those letters, those petitions, statements that have been taken by the inspectors if something’s gone wrong.
What I’ve started to do, is to start to put this together in some kind of spreadsheet, to try to quantify this. MH 12 is the correspondence between the Poor Law Commission and the local unions. It’s not subject matter based, it’s anything that they talk about. So you can’t simply say, ‘well the pauper letters, they’re going to be in that volume’, or ‘they’re going to be in’…they’re distributed across them.
So I’ve started to look to see how big a subset is this within that huge archive that I said would fill this room. I did a very quick count through, from 1834 to, I think, something like 1858 and I found 106 names in total, put to letters or petitions or statements. A lot of these were witness statements where something’s gone wrong and an inspector has said, ‘what did you see?’ and you say what you saw and then ‘what did you see?’ and I’ve taken witness statements.
18% of those names came from petitions where more than two people put their name to it. And 30%, almost a third of these, were individual letters written by paupers complaining about some aspect of the welfare system that they’re on the receiving end of.
And so, I said at the beginning [that] ‘I’d like to say’. You see I think so far what the research tells me are these things: That the poor aren’t some passive, sit back, it all happens to us group; although, undoubtedly for many that must have been the experience. It is after all, a power relationship in the workhouse. But many would complain about their relief being refused or being cut back. Or medical neglect; they’ve suffered medical neglect at the hands of the medical officers themselves, or the relieving officers, who had to sign the chit to say you could receive medical relief. But also ill treatment; verbal or physical abuse of the poor.
So I think, although I need to do more, I think that’s what the records tell us. The difficulty is actually getting in and getting these letters because they’re not in one place where you just get all of them together, it is a case of going through. But you can do that for your locality. You can certainly, on the catalogue, drill down to your local area and secure which volumes there are that you would need to look through.
There is in the book shop [bookshop.nationalarchives.gov.uk/] a kind of leaflet guide to these MH 12 records, which I think is £4.99 and it’s well-spent I think. But it kind of sets out how the record’s organised, how they’re listed, how would you get into these things, what are the kind of things you would expect to find in them.
I’ve talked about pauper letters, which is kind of like a subset of archives within MH 12; but the guide will tell you the other kinds of things that you would expect to find in there: pauper lists, or lists of pauper lunatics, or what happens when a complaint comes in, how’s that followed through and what records are created.
Transcribed by Matthew Vernon as part of a volunteer project, November 2014.