In Their Own Write: Contesting the New Poor Law 1834-1900

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Historical Studies

Abstract

During the last three decades, research on the Old Poor Law (1601-1834) has reinvented our understanding of that institution. This discretionary welfare system gave most people a right to apply for support but no right to receive it, and practice could vary wildly between communities. Older notions that the economic position of the individual parishes that administered welfare dictated who got what, have given way to an acknowledgement that a complex configuration of custom, the personality of individual officials, residual models of philanthropy and humanitarianism and the exact constellation of local poverty, dictated much in policy terms. One of the most exciting aspects of this reinterpretation has been the rediscovery in large numbers of pauper voices (in the form of pauper letters seeking relief) and pauper agency, such that we now understand that paupers were not the passive subjects of the poor law but had the space, rhetoric and confidence to negotiate their place in it. Set against this backdrop, and notwithstanding the work of Hurren, Green and Hooker, the historiography of the New Poor Law has moved on remarkably little since the work of Anne Crowther in the early 1980s. Excepting David Green's work on London or that of King on Bolton, published micro-studies of individual unions have been rare and comparative studies still rarer. We thus still think of the 1834-45 period, during which most parishes were combined into the New Poor Law unions that dispensed welfare, as marking a definitive change in the nature, organisation, intent and outcome of English and Welsh welfare. A discretionary system was replaced by one that combined central direction and control with residual local decision-making and entirely local finance. The leitmotif of this new system was the workhouse and the ebb and flow of attempts to control and at times deny the outdoor relief that had underpinned the Old Poor Law. The dominant chronological narrative has been one in which the so-called crusade against outdoor relief in the 1870s and 1880s marks the final attempt to impose the New Poor Law as its 1834 architects intended. Failure led to the progressive narrowing of its scope, such that the coming of local democracy in the 1890s and the Liberal Welfare Reforms of the early twentieth century in effect ripped away the original foundations. Above all, the pauper was subject to this system, and a second leitmotif has been the coercion of paupers and the rise of the poor law scandal. Their voices, it has been assumed, were largely extinguished. Our project challenges this broad representation. In two pilot projects investigating The National Archives collection MH12 we have found that the pauper voice was not muted and pauper agency was not quashed. Paupers and their advocates continued to write to local officers to try and negotiate relief but the arrival of central authority and oversight offered a new route for the exercise of the pauper voice in the form of letters to London-based officials. In this more developed project we want to undertake a systematic sampling (see CFS) of this vast collection. We will locate and transcribe an estimated 11,000 of these letters, making those transcripts available to the academic/non-academic community. Having transcribed them we will develop new methodological tools (see CFS) for classifying and understanding this corpus, rules which will draw on and be relevant to the considerable range of disciplines which have been concerned with so-called ego documents or more accurately ordinary writing. Our analysis of this material will be driven by key questions centring on the degree to which paupers had agency and used it to negotiate their relief in a system to which they had previously merely been thought subject. Drawing comparative lessons from the pre-1834 period we will offer a New Poor Law history from below, as well as keying into wider debates about literacy, the nature of state power and the class.

Planned Impact

WHO: The involvement of TNA in this project, with its heavily used website and extensive public and school programmes, provides the platform for substantial non-academic engagement and impact. We have identified categories of beneficiary and the mechanisms for ensuring and measuring benefit in two pilot projects conducted by CI P Carter. We expect to engage:

(i) The professional heritage sector such as Historic England and National Trust, as well as local authority and independent museums, who will use the voices we find, the stories we construct and the experiences of the poor that underpin our analysis to give more nuanced site interpretation.

(ii) Visitors to the professional heritage sector who will benefit from a deeper and more sophisticated interpretation of welfare pasts.

(iii) Varied leisure historians (primarily family and local/regional historians) who we will proactively encourage to use the sampled and transcribed data for their own research.

(iv) School teachers and their students undertaking key stage 4 and 5 who will be able to use the sources and stories we create as a resource.

HOW: Drawing on the mechanisms identified as part of our pilot projects, each team member will have responsibility for organising an engagement strand and for monitoring benefit through participation sheets, surveys and feedback analysis. CI P Carter has extensive experience of benefit monitoring given his role at TNA. Collectively, we will:

(i) Organise an ongoing programme of talks for local and family history groups, staff in the professional heritage sector and staff and visitors at venues such as the Southwell Workhouse (Nottinghamshire), Llanfyllin Workhouse (Powys), the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum (Norfolk), with whom we already have strong links.

(ii) Organise webinars. TNA will organise and widely publicise, as part of their ongoing webinar series, annual "In Their Own Write" webinars. Each webinar will provide an overview of the New Poor Law and the archival collection from which the letters are found, along with updates on the geographic spread of material collected during the project. Webinars will highlight the content and queries raised by the letters using transcribed copies. We would also provide detailed advice allowing onsite 'discovery' of the letters themselves should people wish to search for similar material outside the project scope. Take-away data will be available via the project website, through which we will also deal with ongoing queries and engagements.

(iii) Organise workshops and talks at TNA focusing on the records in which pauper letters are found and providing the archival contextual 'sister' surviving documents. The workshop sessions will be highly participatory and, because they will be run at and advertised by the TNA, we expect to garner a significant audience of leisure historians and heritage staff.

(iv) Co-ordinate research team members to write for a non-academic audience in the form of blogs, magazines and tweets.

(v) Create a 'Pauper History' research group spanning the midlands (roughly 40 miles around the University of Leicester. This will draw upon family, local and other leisure historians who would be interested in working with the data produced by the research team and around which we will build onsite research seminars and related activities.

(vi) Build teaching packs for Schools, working within the existing framework at TNA.

(vii) Pitch for a BBC Radio4 series (also entitled "In Their Own Write") in which we will examine, through extracts from the pauper letters, the thoughts, feelings and anxieties of the 19th century poor. The PI King has extensive media and commissioning experience.

These themes are developed at greater length in the attached Pathways to Impact document.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Title On The Poor 
Description A book of poetry inspired by the narratives we are finding and authored by Professor Steven King. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2019 
Impact The book sold out and is being reprinted. 
 
Description We have had three impacts: (I) We have convened a large group of the general public to help with our transcription work, both in the midlands and at TNA; (ii) We have informed and helped the work of groups restoring and maintain workhouses through our membership of the workhouse network; (iii) We have reached considerable international audiences through the use of TNA webinar and seminar platforms.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Creative Economy
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Description 'Talk titled 'Paupers, archives and the authorities: the initmacies of pauper lives' given as part of the 'Poverty, health and the lives of the poor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries' conference. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact This was a talk to the dissertation and UG programmes at Nottingham Trent University
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Discussion on poor laws on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact This In our Time Interview garnered major exposure for our project. See Podcast: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0001m73
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Gressenhall Farm Workhouse stall 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Running a public engagement stall on an open day at the workhouse
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Keynote lecture for the Family and Community History Research Society 2018 conference (74 attendees). It had a branded ITOW theme which was 'The pauper family and the power of the state'. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a major talk to frame the next major project of the Family and Community History Research Society
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Piblic Talk (TNA) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Big Ideas Seminar Series: 'In their own write: "I charge the Master with unnecessary severity, cruelty, and recklessness", Henry Bell, York Workhouse Inmate 1858. Welfare, discipline and pauper agency in the nineteenth century'. The podcast and live transmission reached tens of thousands.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
URL http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/big-ideas-series-write-welfare-discipline-pauper-agen...
 
Description Suthwell workhouse network meeting for workhouse museums 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The project is a participant in the workhouse network of workhouse museums and we provided advice and context at this meeting
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk entitled - 'Complain, Punish and Incarcerate: 19th century workhouse experiences'. Given as part of a conference titled 'Recovering the 19th Century Penal Landscape' 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a talk at the Nottingham Galleries of Justice
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk entitled - 'How did poor people contest the power of the State'. It was a branded ITOW event and related to a new GCSE module 'Power: From Monarchy to Parliament 1000-2014' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact This was a talk for GCSE students on the long history of welfare.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk entitled - In Their Own Write: Victorian Pauper Letters 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a contextual talk for the charity that has taken over and is restoring the Ripon workhouse
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Talk titled 'we should be clem'd and starved' Welsh pauper letters. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This talk was in the TNA series for the general public
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Webinar titled 'Introducing 19th-century paupers' letters' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This webinar reached audiences in excess of 100,000. See Webinar available through TNA youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjvNmD-JG-A
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Workshop for volunteer transcribers 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact This was a training workshop to enable members of the general public to identify, transcribe and use pauper letters.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018