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‘I cannot keep my place without being deascent’: Pauper Letters, Parish Clothing and Pragmatism in the South of England, 1750–18301

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2009

Department of Medieval and Modern History, University of Birmingham, Birmingham B15 2TT


This paper examines the issue of pauper agency under the old poor law. It relies on an examination of the ‘voice’ of paupers as it appears in a hitherto neglected source, pauper letters. The ‘face-to-face’ nature of poor relief has often been commented upon by historians, yet despite an ongoing historical preoccupation with all aspects of its administration, the question of how paupers actually interacted with, let alone were able to influence, the provision of that relief remains largely unexamined. Concentrating on requests for, or involving the issue of, clothing, this paper argues that paupers not only demonstrated a keen awareness of the imperatives underpinning relief policy in the locality, but also utilised aspects of many long-standing and powerful cultural discourses to strengthen their case for clothing relief.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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2. See especially Styles, John, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven, 2008)Google Scholar. See also Styles, John, ‘Clothing the North: The Supply of Non-Elite Clothing in the Eighteenth-Century North of England’, Textile History, 25:2 (1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Styles, John, ‘Involuntary Consumers? Servants and Their Clothes in Eighteenth-Century England’, Textile History, 33 (2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Styles, John, ‘Custom or Consumption? Plebeian Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England’ in Berg, Maxine and Eger, Elizabeth, eds., Luxury in the Eighteenth-Century: Debates, Desires and Delectable Goods (Basingstoke, 2002)Google Scholar; King, Steven and Payne, Christiana, eds., ‘The Dress of the Poor, 1700–1900’, Textile History (special edition), 33 (2002)Google Scholar; King, Steven, ‘The Clothing of the Poor: A Matter of Pride or Shame?’ in Gestrich, Andreas, King, Steven and Lutz, Raphael, eds., Being Poor in Modern Europe: Historical Perspectives 1800–1940 (Oxford 2006)Google Scholar; Jones, Peter, ‘Clothing the Poor in Early-Nineteenth Century England’, Textile History, 37:1 (2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lambert, Miles, ‘‘Cast-off Wearing Apparell’: The Consumption and Distribution of Second-Hand Clothing in Northern England during the Long Eighteenth Century’, Textile History, 35:1 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lemire, Beverly, ‘Peddling Fashion: Salesmen, Pawnbrokers, Taylors, Thieves and the Second-hand Clothes Trade in England, 1700–1800’, Textile History, 22:1 (1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lemire, Beverley, ‘‘A Good Stock of Cloaths’: The Changing Market for Cotton Clothing, 1750–1800’, Textile History, 22:2 (1991)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3. See especially Hitchcock, Tim, King, Peter and Sharpe, Pamela, Chronicling Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640–1840 (Basingstoke, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; King, Steven and Tomkins, Alannah, The Poor in England 1700–1850: An Economy of Makeshifts (Manchester, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4. See, for example, Hitchcock, King and Sharpe, Chronicling Poverty, chapters 7, 8, 9; Sokoll, Thomas, Essex Pauper Letters 1731–1837 (Oxford, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sokoll, Thomas, ‘Negotiating a Living: Essex Pauper Letters from London, 1800–1834International Review of Social History 45 (2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Sokoll, Thomas, ‘Writing for Relief: Rhetoric in English Pauper Letters’ in Gestrich, Andreas, King, Steven and Raphael, Lutz, eds., Being Poor in Modern Europe: Historical Perspectives 1800–1940 (Geneva, 2004)Google Scholar; King, Steven, ‘“Stop This Overwhelming Torment of Destiny”: Negotiating Financial Aid at Times of Sickness under the English Old Poor Law, 1800–1840’, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 79:2 (2005)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; King, Steven, ‘“It is impossible for our Vestry to judge his case into perfection from here”: Managing the Distance Dimensions of Poor Relief, 1800–1840’, Rural History, 16:2 (2005)Google Scholar.

5. J.L., and Hammond, Barbara, The Village Labourer 1760–1832 (London, 1911), p. 242Google Scholar.

6. The question of ‘authenticity’, or who actually wrote the letters and to what purpose, is complex, although Thomas Sokoll and Steven King have done a good job of assuaging historians’ concerns in their work so far (see especially Sokoll, ‘Writing for Relief’, and King ‘Stop this Overwhelming Torrent of Destiny’, 238–240). My own view is that the issue of ‘authenticity’ in terms of the rhetorical output of the poor is something that requires a much more rigorous treatment than it has received so far, something I hope to address in the near future. For the purposes of this article (and in a nutshell) I have taken a stance that is similar to that of an anonymous correspondent to the National Review in 1861 in relation to popular ballads: ‘[They] are almost always written by persons of the class to which they are addressed; and the very sameness of them, the family likeness which runs through each separate branch of them, shows that they are adapted to meet the wants and views of that class’ (quoted in Roy Palmer, The Sound of History (Oxford, 1988), p. 13).

7. Sokoll, Essex Pauper Letters. Pauper letters collected specifically for this study come from the parishes of Sonning, Pangbourne, Tilehurst, Wallingford and Wantage in Berkshire, and Bishopstoke, Brokenhurst and Fawley in Hampshire. See below for archival references.

8. Sokoll, ‘Writing for Relief’, p. 103.

9. For narratives of sickness in the letters, see King, ‘Stop This Overwhelming Torment of Destiny’, and King, ‘The Dignity of the Sick Poor’.

10. Thompson, E. P., ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’, in Customs in Common (London, 1991), p. 187Google Scholar.

11. For recent work on how the old poor law was administered in the locality, see (for the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries), Hindle, Steve, On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England c.1550–1750 (Oxford, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see especially Snell, Keith, Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660–1900 (Cambridge 1985), pp. 104137CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Williams, Samantha, ‘Poor Relief, Labourers’ Households and Living Standards in Rural England c.1770–1834: A Bedfordshire Case Study’, Economic History Review, 58:3 (2005), 485519CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. Hampshire Record Office (HRO) 25M60/PV1, 5th January 1820; Berkshire County Record Office (BCRO) DP 28/8/1, 29th November 1822; HRO 137M71/PV1, 20th December 1821.

13. HRO 25M60/PV1, 21st November 1821; HRO 22M84/PV1, 16th May 1829.

14. Styles, Dress of the People, 247–255. Styles notes that ‘clothes were the third most common form of provision for the poor provided by endowed charities in the early nineteenth century, after money and foodstuffs’ (p. 250).

15. BCRO DP/132/18/12, no date, possibly 1835.

16. Sokoll, Essex Pauper Letters, pp. 315, 322, 333, 533.

17. Ibid., pp. 356–7.

18. HRO 25M60/PO35/896 26th May 1830, and HRO 25M60/PO35/894 9th October 1830.

19. BCRO DP/91/18/10, 27th October 1828.

20. Thompson, Customs in Common, p. 11.

21. Davies, David, The Case of the Labourers in Husbandry Stated and Considered (London, 1795)Google Scholar; Eden, Frederick Morton, The State of the Poor: or an History of the Labouring Classes in England (London, 1797)Google Scholar. John Styles has recently questioned the accuracy of their collection methods, suggesting that ‘their findings should be treated with considerable caution’. However, in the final analysis he concludes that ‘Despite these shortcomings, the information on clothing in the family budgets . . . remains informative, as long its limitations are recognised’. Styles, Dress of the People, p. 255, 266.

22. Davies, The Case of the Labourers in Husbandry, Appendix 1, p. 205; Eden, The State of the Poor, Appendix XII, cccxliv.

23. Davies, The Case of the Labourers in Husbandry, p. 7.

24. Select Committee on the Operation of the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1837: Minutes of Evidence, p. 19.

25. Report from the Select Committee on Labourers’ Wages, 1824, pp. 21–22.

26. For the ‘assisted acquisition’ of clothing for the poor, see Styles, Dress of the People, Chapter 15, and Vivienne Richmond, ‘‘No Finery’: The Dress of the Poor in Nineteenth-Century England’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of London, Goldsmiths College, 2004), chapter 5.

27. The Southampton Town and County Herald, Isle of Wight Gazette, and General Advertiser, 2nd January 1830. The same pattern is visible in almost any provincial newspaper in the south of England for the same period, and is also clearly visible in the national press, for example in The Times. John Styles notes that charitable donations of clothing were common during periods of hardship throughout the eighteenth century, but the records suggest that they became far more regular and formalised after the crisis years of 1799–1800. Styles, Dress of the People, p. 249.

28. ‘Mechanics’ Lamentation’, in the Bodleian Library Collection, University of Oxford, Harding B 11(2392).

29. ‘Ye Tyrants of Old England’, in Manchester Central Reference Library, BR Q398.8 S9.

30. Styles, Dress of the People, pp. 20–24.

31. William Cobbett, Twopenny Trash, No. 1, July 1830 p. 12.

32. The Times, 26th November 1803.

33. For a fuller discussion of the trope of the opulently dressed ‘new-fashioned farmer’, see Jones, ‘Clothing the Poor’, 32–3; Jones, ‘Captain Swing and Rural Popular Consciousness: Nineteenth Century Southern English Social History in Context’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Southampton 2003), pp. 96–104; Dyck, Ian, William Cobbett and Rural Popular Culture (Cambridge, 1992), chapter 3Google Scholar; and, more recently, Styles, Dress of the People, pp. 184–8 .

34. ‘The Farmers Never Done’, cited in Palmer, Roy, The Painful Plough (Cambridge, 1972)Google Scholar, original in Norfolk and Norwich Millenium Library.

35. William Cobbett, Political Register, 11th March 1823, p. 757.

36. For discussion of the ‘crisis’ of poor relief at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, see especially Blaug, Mark, ‘The Myth of the Old Poor Law and the Making of the New’, Journal of Economic History, 23:2 (1963)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Baugh, D. A., ‘The Cost of Poor Relief in South-East England, 1790–1834’, Economic History Review, 28, 1 (1975)Google Scholar; Snell, K. D. M., Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales 1700–1950 (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 213–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37. Peter Jones, ‘Swing, Speenhamland and Rural Social Relations: The ‘Moral Economy’ of the English Crowd in the Nineteenth Century’ in Social History, 32:3 (August 2007), 271–90.

38. HRO 46M69/PV1, 22nd October 1822.

39. East Sussex County Record Office (ESCRO) PAR.253, n.d., 1791.

40. BCRO DP51/8/1, 14th November 1829; HRO 25M60/PV1, 14th February 1821; HRO 90M71/PV1, 2nd May 1828.

41. Jones, ‘Clothing the Poor’, 27–9

42. BCRO DP/139/18/4/6, 16th January 1768.

43. HRO 43M67/PV1, Amport Vestry Minutes.

44. HRO 25M60/PV1, Fawley Vestry Minutes.

45. BRO DP/71/8/3, 4th March 1822; HRO 40M75A/PV2, 6th September 1825.

46. BCRO DP/51/8/1 (Enborne), 3rd April 1804.

47. BCRO DP/91/18, 23rd March 1827.

48. BCRO DP/139/18/3, 29th April 1755.

49. BCRO DP/132/18/12/29, 29th January 1829; Arthur Tabrum to Chelmsford, 23rd December 1828, cited in Sokoll, Essex Pauper Letters, p. 275.

50. Styles, Dress of the People, p. 209; Wesleyan Methodist Church Conference, Minutes of several conversations, between the Rev. John Wesley, A.M. and the preachers in connection with him. Containing the form of discipline Established among Preachers and People in the Methodist Societies (London, 1779), p. 11.

51. Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London 1963), p. 8Google Scholar.

52. Jones, ‘Clothing the Poor’, 19–22.

53. Jones, ‘Clothing the Poor’, 20.

54. HRO 95M95/PV1, 4th October 1791.

55. HRO 22M84/PO119, Ringwood Rough Workhouse Ledger, 1826–30.

56. HRO 22M84/PO119, 20th October 1828–15th August 1829.

57. HRO 22M84/PV3, 11th May 1818, 18th April 1819, 28th June 1828.

58. The literature on domestic and agricultural service in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is diverse and extensive, but see especially Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor, pp. 67–103; and Schwarz, L. D., ‘English Servants and Their Employers During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth CenturiesEconomic History Review, 52: 2, (May 1999), 236–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

59. Report of the Select Committee on Criminal Commitments and Convictions (1828) pp. 36, 32.

60. HRO 22M84/PO107, Ringwood ‘Shoe Accounts Book’, 1817–1823. It is important to note that those outdoor poor employed in the making and repair of shoes were additional to those employed elsewhere by the parish on the roads etc., and those working for local employers under the parish's vigorous and well-enforced ‘roundsman’ system.

61. HRO 22M84/PO111, Account of the Number of Residents in Ringwood Workhouse and How Employed, 1814–23. In addition, we also know that between April 1816 and March 1819 Anthony Pritchett, an elderly workhouse resident, was paid a mere twelve shillings and four pence for weaving thirty-four separate pieces of dowlas and sheeting. See HRO 22M85/PO106, Ringwood Workhouse Accounts, ‘Incidental Payments’, 1816–19.

62. Styles, Dress of the People, chapter 16.

63. The material in Table 1 is very similar to the information presented in Jones, ‘Clothing the Poor’, 22. However, at that time only the information from 1823 to 1829 was available for analysis.

64. Styles, Dress of the Poor, p. 265.

65. Jones, ‘Swing, Speenhamland and Rural Social Relations’, 279–81.

66. Parliamentary Papers: Report from the Committee appointed to inspect and consider the Returns made to the Overseers of the Poor, in Pursuance of Act of last Session, 15th May 1777.

67. BCRO DP/143/18/5/8, 2nd June 1766.

68. For the best recent discussion of the numbers reliant on poor relief, see King, Steven, Poverty and Welfare in England 1700–1850: A Comparative Perspective (Manchester 2000), pp. 111140Google Scholar. Samantha Williams estimates that in the Bedfordshire parishes of Campton and Shefford, up to one third of the population benefited directly from poor relief between 1790 and 1834, although this figure could be much higher in crisis years: Williams, Samantha, ‘Poor Relief, Labourers’ Households and Living Standards in Rural England c.1770–1834: A Bedfordshire Case Study’, Economic History Review, 58: 3 (2005), 516CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69. BCRO DP/139/18/4/2, 10th May 1755.

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