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PAUPER INVENTORIES, SOCIAL RELATIONS, AND THE NATURE OF POOR RELIEF UNDER THE OLD POOR LAW, ENGLAND, c. 1601–1834

  • JOSEPH HARLEY (a1)
Abstract

During the old poor law, many paupers had their possessions inventoried and later taken by authorities as part of the process of obtaining poor relief. Historians have known about this for decades, yet little research has been conducted to establish how widespread the system was, what types of parishioners had their belongings inventoried and why, what the legal status of the practice was, and how it affected social relations in the parish. Using nearly 450 pauper inventories, this article examines these historiographical lacunae. It is argued that the policy had no legal basis and came from local practices and policies. The system is found to be more common in the south and east of England than in the north, and it is argued that the practice gradually became less common from the late eighteenth century. The inventorying of paupers’ goods often formed one of the many creative ways in which parishes helped the poor before 1770, as it guaranteed many paupers assistance until death. However, by the late eighteenth century the appraising of paupers’ goods was closely tied to a negative shift in the attitudes of larger ratepayers and officials, who increasingly wanted to dissuade people from applying for assistance and reduce expenditure.

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Corresponding author
University of Derby, Kedleston Road, Derby, de22 1gb j.harley@derby.ac.uk
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The research was kindly funded by the AHRC (ah/k503101/1) and the Economic History Society (EHS-AppRFGS07/2013/0028; EHS-AppRFGS/1477901217899016; and Postan fellowship 2016–17). I am especially grateful to the anonymous reviewers and Tim Hitchcock, Pete King, Keith Snell, Jon Stobart, Roey Sweet, and Emily Whewell for their advice and detailed feedback on earlier drafts or versions of this research. The findings were presented at two conferences (‘Before the Welfare State’, 2016, University of Leicester and ‘Ordering the Margins of Society’, 2017, SAS, University of London). I would like to thank members of the audience who commented on the work and made recommendations.

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1 Robinson, Eric, ed., John Clare's autobiographical writings (Oxford, 1983), p. 2.

2 Ibid., pp. 15–16.

3 Ibid., p. 16.

4 Ibid., p. 115.

5 Clare, John, The parish: a satire, ed. Robinson, Eric (London, 1985), pp. 63–4.

6 Tomkins, Alannah, The experience of urban poverty, 1732–1782: parish, charity and credit (Manchester, 2006), pp. 204–34; Lemire, Beverly, The business of everyday life: gender, practice and social politics in England, c. 1600–1900 (Manchester, 2005); Tebbutt, Melanie, Making ends meet: pawnbroking and working-class credit (Leicester, 1983).

7 Some of the most notable succinct examples include Palmer, William M., Meldreth parish records (Royston, 1896), pp. 41–2; Webb, Sidney and Webb, Beatrice, English local government: English poor law history, the old poor law (7 vols., London, 1927), vii, Part 1, p. 169; Emmison, F. M., The relief of the poor at Eaton Socon, 1706–1834 (Aspley Guise, 1933), pp. 30, 33–4; Hampson, E. M., The treatment of poverty in Cambridgeshire, 1597–1834 (Cambridge, 1934), pp. 7980, 83, 108–9, 182–3, 185, 276–7; Tate, W. E., The parish chest: a study of the records of parochial administration in England (3rd edn, Cambridge, 1969), pp. 207, 303 n. 33; A. E. Newman, ‘The old poor law in east Kent, 1606–1834: a social and demographic analysis’ (Ph.D. thesis, Kent, 1979), pp. 153–4; Boulton, Jeremy, ‘Going on the parish: the parish pension and its meaning in the London suburbs, 1640–1724’, in Hitchcock, T., King, P., and Sharpe, P., eds., Chronicling poverty: the voices and strategies of the English poor, 1640–1840 (Basingstoke, 1997), pp. 35–6; Kent, Joan, rural, ‘Themiddling sort” in early modern England, circa 1640–1740: some economic, political and socio-cultural characteristics’, Rural History, 10 (1999), pp. 1954, at pp. 34–5; idem and King, Steven, ‘Changing patterns of poor relief in some English rural parishes circa 1650–1750’, Rural History, 14 (2003), pp. 119–56, at pp. 137–9; King, Steven, Poverty and welfare in England, 1700–1850: a regional perspective (Manchester, 2000), pp. 93–7; Hindle, Steve, On the parish? The micro-politics of poor relief in rural England, c. 1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004), pp. 189, 281–2, 450; Botelho, L. A., Old age and the English poor law, 1500–1700 (Woodbridge, 2004), pp. 118–20.

8 Newman, ‘Old poor law’, pp. 153–4. Other historians, albeit briefly, have also linked the making of pauper inventories to control and deterrence. See Boulton, ‘Going’, p. 35; Kent and King, ‘Changing’, p. 137; Hindle, On the parish?, p. 282.

9 Kent, ‘Middling’, p. 35.

10 King, Poverty and welfare, pp. 93–7. Similar argument are made in Cornford, Barbara, ‘Inventories of the poor’, Norfolk Archaeology, 35 (1970–3), pp. 118–25, at p. 125.

11 Peter King, ‘Pauper inventories and the material lives of the poor in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries’, in Hitchcock, King, and Sharpe, eds., Chronicling, pp. 155–91. Also see Cornford, ‘Inventories’, pp. 118–25; Harley, Joseph, ‘Material lives of the poor and their strategic use of the workhouse during the final decades of the English old poor law’, Continuity and Change, 30 (2015), esp. pp. 81–5; idem, ‘Material lives of the English poor: a regional perspective, c. 1670–1834’ (Ph.D. thesis, Leicester, 2016); idem, ‘Consumption and poverty in the homes of the English poor, c. 1670–1834’, Social History, 43 (2018), pp. 81–104.

12 King, ‘Pauper inventories’, pp. 182–3.

13 Riello, Giorgio, ‘“Things seen and unseen”: the material culture of early modern inventories and their representation of domestic interiors’, in Findlen, Paula, ed., Early modern things: objects and their histories, 1500–1800 (London, 2013), p. 134.

14 Green, Adrian, ‘Heartless and unhomely? Dwellings of the poor in East Anglia and north-east England’, in McEwan, Joanne and Sharpe, Pamela, eds., Accommodating poverty: the housing and living arrangements of the English poor, c. 1600–1850 (Basingstoke, 2011), pp. 69101. See below for discussion on the range of inventories found among parish records.

15 For example, Webb and Webb, English local government, vii, Part 1, p. 169.

16 This is discussed further below.

17 See for instance the 1804 vestry minutes of Tetney, Lincolnshire, in John Wild, Tetney, Lincolnshire: a history (Grimsby, 1901), pp. 95–6.

18 Of the 434 pauper inventories used here, only 72 record valuations of some or all the goods listed, and 89 list the possessions by rooms or mention one of them in passing. The sample of pauper inventories from Norfolk will be published in Joseph Harley, Norfolk pauper inventories, c. 1690–1834 (forthcoming).

19 The earliest reference to the policy is from Great Staughton, Cambridgeshire, in Kent and King, ‘Changing’, p. 137.

20 On workhouse-related inventories, see Harley, ‘Material lives of the poor and their strategic use of the workhouse’, pp. 71–103; Tomkins, Urban poverty, pp. 36–78; Ottaway, Susannah R., The decline of life: old age in eighteenth-century England (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 247–76.

21 See the example of John Monday in Cirket, Alan F., ed., Samuel Whitbread's notebooks, 1810–1811, 1813–1814 (Bedford, 1971), p. 125.

22 Essex Record Office (ERO) D/P 54/18/1.

23 See for instance the goods-taken inventory of John Hansford, Hingham, NRO PD 575/12.

24 For further information on these numerous types of inventories, see Harley, ‘Material lives of the English poor: a regional perspective’, esp. pp. 68–72; and idem, ‘Material lives of the poor and their strategic use of the workhouse’, pp. 71–103.

25 Wooler, Thomas Jonathan, Every man his own attorney: comprising the law of landlord and tenant (London, 1830).

26 Shepard, Alexandra, Accounting for oneself: worth, status, and the social order (Oxford, 2015), esp. pp. 3581, 277–302.

27 Williams, Thomas Walter, The whole law relative to the duty and office of a justice of the peace (3rd edn, 4 vols., London, 1812), iii, pp. 673, 740; Jacob, Giles, The compleat parish-officer (London, 1744), p. 187; Nolan, Michael, A treatise of the laws for the relief and settlement of the poor (4th edn, 3 vols., London, 1825), iii, pp. 86, 116–17; Dickinson, William, A practical exposition of the law relative to the office and duties of a justice of the peace (3 vols., London, 1813), ii, pp. 53, 685–6; ERO D/P 245/18/11; Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester, and Rutland DE 400/64.

28 Dickinson, Exposition, ii, p. 720; Williams, Law, iii, pp. 354, 603, 694, 696, 708; ibid., iv, pp. 315–16, 950; Jacob, Compleat, pp. 89, 144, 186; Nolan, Treatise, iii, pp. 64–6, 127–8, 151.

29 On discretionary local application of the law, see: King, Peter, Crime, justice and discretion in England, 1740–1820 (Oxford, 2000); idem, ‘The summary courts and social relations in eighteenth-century England’, Past and Present, 183 (2004), pp. 125–72; idem, Crime and law in England, 1750–1840: remaking justice from the margins (Cambridge, 2006); Hindle, On the parish?; Sugarman, David and Rubin, G. R., ‘Towards a new history of the law and material society in England, 1750–1914’, in Rubin, G. R. and Sugarman, David, eds., Law, economy and society, 1750–1914: essays in the history of English law (Abingdon, 1984), pp. 4752; Shave, Samantha A., Pauper policies: poor law practice in England, 1780–1850 (Manchester, 2017).

30 NRO PD 358/41.

31 Kent History Library Centre (KHLC) P224/18/18. Also see Boulton, ‘Going’, pp. 35–6.

32 NRO PD 499/79.

33 KHLC De/JQs1.

34 See King, Peter, ‘The rights of the poor and the role of the law: the impact of pauper appeals to the summary courts, 1750–1834’, in Jones, Peter and King, Steven, eds., Obligation, entitlement and dispute under the English poor laws, 1600–1900 (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 252–3, 257, 260–1; King, Poverty and Welfare, pp. 31–2; Dunkley, Peter, ‘Paternalism, the magistracy and poor relief in England, 1795–1834’, International Review of Social History, 24 (1979), pp. 371–97.

35 The current state of research suggests that most paupers had a decent understanding of the poor laws which they used to negotiate relief. Snell, K. D. M., Parish and belonging: community, identity and welfare in England and Wales (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 8793; King, Steven, ‘Negotiating the law of poor relief in England, 1800–1840’, History, 96 (2011), pp. 410–35; King, ‘Rights of the poor’, pp. 253–4.

36 Cirket, ed., Notebooks, p. 125.

37 Kussmaul, Ann, ed., The autobiography of Joseph Mayett of Quainton (1783–1839) (Chesham, 1986), pp. 83–4.

38 Unfortunately, this inventory does not appear to have survived.

39 Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library U3/269/16/1.

40 King, Poverty and welfare, pp. 164–7; Williams, Samantha, Poverty, gender and life-cycle under the English poor law, 1760–1834 (Woodbridge, 2011), pp. 101–30.

41 King, Poverty and welfare, pp. 164–7; Snell, K. D. M., Annals of the labouring poor: social change and agrarian England, 1660–1900 (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 108–14; Dunkley, Peter, The crisis of the old poor law in England, 1795–1834: an interpretive essay (London, 1982); Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 101–59.

42 King, Poverty and welfare, pp. 164–7; French, Henry, ‘An irrevocable shift: detailing the dynamics of rural poverty in southern England, 1762–1834’, Economic History Review, 68 (2015), pp. 769805, at pp. 782–4, 786–7, 797–805; Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 101–30.

43 Most people on regular relief also received some sort of casual relief, such as clothing and rent.

44 It is important to note that if there were any doubts over whether the person in the inventory was on relief the source was omitted.

45 On the lifecycles of poverty, see for example Rowntree, B. S., Poverty: a study of town life (3rd edn, London, 1902); Wales, Tim, ‘Poverty, poor relief and life-cycle: some evidence from seventeenth-century Norfolk’, in Smith, Richard M., ed., Land, kinship and life-cycle (Cambridge, 1984), pp. 351404; Stapleton, Barry, ‘Inherited poverty and the life-cycle poverty: Odiham, Hampshire, 1650–1850’, Social History, 18 (1993), pp. 339–55; Shave, Samantha A., ‘The dependent poor? (Re)constructing the lives of individuals “on the parish” in rural Dorset, 1800–1832’, Rural History, 20 (2009), pp. 6797; Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 101–30.

46 Seven of these pauper inventories are from Essex. These ages were found through analysis of a small number of parish registers and poor law records which mention ages.

47 The 2 per cent of married women only had pauper inventories made in their own names because their husbands were living away from home in a poorhouse or lunatic asylum. Usually relief to married couples was in the husband's name.

48 Children are defined as fifteen years old or younger.

49 Snell, Annals, pp. 15–66.

50 For example, in 1820 the overseer of Little Walsingham (Norfolk), William Groom, had his goods distrained by justices of the peace for overspending £87 7s 12d of parish funds, NRO PD 582/108. Also see Newman, ‘Old poor law’, p. 134; Botelho, Old age, p. 68.

51 Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 91–100; King, ‘Rights of the poor’, pp. 235–62; Dunkley, ‘Paternalism’, pp. 371–97.

52 Hindle, On the parish?, pp. 365–78; Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 69–100.

53 KHLC P347/18/10.

54 Ibid.

55 Dorset History Centre (DHC) PE-SW/OV/1/5.

56 DHC PE-POW/OV/1/2.

57 ERO D/P 35/8/1.

58 Already on relief is defined as receiving relief for two months or more before the pauper inventory was made. Most people in this category, however, had been on some sort of relief for years. Unfortunately, it was not possible to determine exactly when paupers started receiving relief in around one third of the inventories.

59 Hindle, On the parish?, p. 281; Hindle, Steve, ‘Power, poor relief, and social relations in Holland Fen, c. 1600–1800’, Historical Journal, 41 (1998), pp. 6796, at p. 94.

60 Hindle, On the parish?, p. 281; Emmison, Relief of the poor, pp. 33–4.

61 DHC PE-BBK/OV/1/1.

62 See for instance the example of Edward Mills and Wingham parish above.

63 There are, of course, exceptions. In Redenhall with Harleston and Wortwell in Norfolk, for example, pauper inventories can be found from 1708 to 1828.

64 Snell, Annals, pp. 105–7; Blaug, Mark, ‘The poor law report reexamined’, Journal of Economic History, 24 (1964), pp. 229–45, at p. 229.

65 This is further discussed above.

66 Tim Hitchcock, Peter King, and Pamela Sharpe, ‘Introduction: chronicling poverty – the voices and strategies of the English poor, 1640–1840’, in Hitchcock, King, and Sharpe, eds., Chronicling, p. 10; Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 69–100, 125–9.

67 British Parliamentary Papers (BPP), 1834, xxix.1, Report from his majesty's commissioners for inquiring into the administration and practical operation of the poor laws. Appendix A: Reports of assistant commissioners, part II, p. 195a.

68 Hindle, Steve, ‘Dependency, shame and belonging: badging the deserving poor, c. 1550–1750’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004), pp. 635; Hindle, On the parish?, pp. 433–45.

69 Lancashire Record Office MBRA/acc9017/11.

70 NRO PD 219/114.

71 Nolan, Treatise, ii, p. 390.

72 Scott, John, Observations on the present state of the parochial and vagrant poor (London, 1773), p. 48.

73 See above.

74 Elizabeth Melling, ed., Kentish sources, iv: The poor (Maidstone, 1964), p. 104; Northampton Mercury, 2 Jan. 1819, p. 4; Evening Mail, 13 Jan. 1830, p. 2.

75 BPP, 1834, xxxix.1, Report from his majesty's commissioners for inquiring into the administration and practical operation of the poor laws. Appendix F: Foreign communications, pp. xvii, 149, 287, 457; Nevill, Samuel, The acts of the General Assembly of the province of New-Jersey, from the year 1753 (2 vols., Woodbridge, NJ, 1761), ii, pp. 226–7.

76 King, ‘Pauper inventories’, pp. 155–91.

77 Green, ‘Heartless’, p. 81.

78 For further discussion on local, regional, and inter-regional differences, see King, Poverty and welfare; King, Steven, ‘Welfare regimes and welfare regions in Britain and Europe, c. 1750s to 1860s’, Journal of Modern European History, 9 (2011), pp. 4265; Snell, Annals, pp. 104–7; Slack, Paul, Poverty and policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London, 1988), p. 179; Hindle, On the parish?, pp. 282–95; Williams, Poverty, gender, pp. 66, 160–2; Hanly, Margaret, ‘The economy of makeshifts and the role of the poor law: a game of chance?’, in King, Steven and Tomkins, Alannah, eds., The poor in England 1700–1850: an economy of makeshifts (Manchester, 2003), pp. 7699; Smith, Richard M., ‘Ageing and well-being in early modern England: pension trends and gender preferences under the English old poor law, c. 1650–1800’, in Johnson, Paul and Thane, Pat, eds., Old age from antiquity to post-modernity (London, 1998), pp. 6495.

79 Smith, ‘Ageing and well-being’, pp. 76, 84.

80 Hanly, ‘Economy of makeshifts’, pp. 79–80.

81 Lemire, Business, pp. 82–109; Tebbutt, Making ends meet; Shepard, Accounting for oneself; Tomkins, Urban Poverty, pp. 204–34.

The research was kindly funded by the AHRC (ah/k503101/1) and the Economic History Society (EHS-AppRFGS07/2013/0028; EHS-AppRFGS/1477901217899016; and Postan fellowship 2016–17). I am especially grateful to the anonymous reviewers and Tim Hitchcock, Pete King, Keith Snell, Jon Stobart, Roey Sweet, and Emily Whewell for their advice and detailed feedback on earlier drafts or versions of this research. The findings were presented at two conferences (‘Before the Welfare State’, 2016, University of Leicester and ‘Ordering the Margins of Society’, 2017, SAS, University of London). I would like to thank members of the audience who commented on the work and made recommendations.

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