Small bills and petty finance: co-creating the history of the Old Poor Law

Lead Research Organisation: Keele University
Department Name: Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences


The Old Poor Law in England and Wales, administered by the local parish, dispensed benefits to paupers providing a uniquely comprehensive, pre-modern system of relief. In the process, it also offered entrepreneurial or employment opportunities to the people who supplied and administered the system. This project will investigate the experiences of people across the social spectrum whose lives were touched by the Old Poor Law. Very little is known about the midwives, tailors, workhouse mistresses, butchers and others who serviced the parish, and this research sets out to redress this omission by drawing on a class of little-used sources and on the collective support of volunteer researchers.

Overseers' vouchers are the ephemeral, handwritten papers typically generated whenever the parish incurred a debt. These vouchers survive in very large numbers for selected parishes, such as the 2063 for Colwich in Staffordshire. They provide information about the identities of those who were paid for goods and services for the poor, and also reveal the scale of income to be gained by working on behalf of the parish. Additionally, these vouchers expose the networks of traders who benefitted from the business - and those who did not - and the longevity of these relationships. The social and economic bonds forged between the poor and the non-poor are fully reflected at the most granular scale in these quotidian sources. The presence of vouchers in parish collections has long been acknowledged, but their utility for historical research has been wholly disregarded owing to the significant technical challenges of using them. Where they survive vouchers can be tightly or chaotically folded, diverse in format, and of variable legibility, offering uncertain returns for the lone investigator. As a pilot study in Staffordshire has demonstrated, however, volunteer researchers working alongside academics have the scope to unpack vouchers both physically and intellectually. Collaboration with volunteers offers historians of the Old Poor Law a new opportunity to integrate the content of vouchers into histories of the poor and to evidence more fully the lives of ordinary people beyond poverty.

This work will generate partial biographies of tradespeople, administrators, paupers, and workers who are not represented elsewhere in the historical record in consistent ways. The biographies will be written by volunteers and project staff. These outputs will not always mimic the complete record required for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, since the nature of the sources will not permit cradle-to-grave certainty about people's life courses. What they will do is draw on vouchers and available genealogical material for the same locations to outline those parts of lives that are reliably visible from these recalcitrant parish sources. The value of partial biographies has been demonstrated by the limited number available via the ESRC-funded London Lives website. This work will expand the geographical remit of the model, develop the methodology by placing vouchers at the heart of the exercise, and incorporate the editorial choices and writing of volunteer researchers.

At completion of the funded project the collected dictionaries will contain a minimum of 1000 lives from across the counties of Cumbria, Staffordshire and East Sussex; and the project dataset will include at least 50,000 lines of data, reflecting a similar number of vouchers.

Planned Impact

The non-academic impact of this project will be discernible by county archive services, volunteer groups, archive users, family historians, and local historians.

Opening up little-used archive collections will promote the development of online archival catalogues. With the input of volunteers, overseers' vouchers which tend to be numbered as bundles only can be described at the item level, and this calendaring information can be transferred to online portals such as the Staffordshire archives service's 'Gateway to the Past'. This means that voucher content in terms of surnames, occupational labels, and other keywords including specific grocery items, will be recoverable by family and local historians, and the research potential of the vouchers be extended further. This potential has been signaled by the pilot project in talks to the Staffordshire History Day (7 May 2016) and a dedicated study day (November 2016 - sold out). Similar study days will be offered on an annual basis at all three participating archives. In the first two years of the project these will comprise academic-style papers and hands-on study days, while in the third year of the project this will incorporate end-of-award dissemination events (incorporating hospitality, talks, and an exhibition). The wider community of local historians will be reached by articles in archival newsletters and in genealogy periodicals such as the BBC History magazine. The deposit of the curated dataset with participating archives and with the genealogy company FindMyPast will extend the benefits of the project to a global family-history community.

The engagement of volunteers with the minutiae of voucher contents over a three-year project will enhance participants' skills in handling/interpreting documents and represent a pathway to training in archival use. The appetite for engagement and training has been amply demonstrated in Staffordshire by the successful pilot work on overseers' vouchers and by similar projects such as the work on Staffordshire Military Tribunals papers (illustrated by a project blog parallel to that for the poor-law biographies, available at To disseminate project practice beyond the participant counties, archival organisations will be approached in the first instance via the annual Discovering Collections, Discovering Communities conference hosted by the National Archives and Research Libraries UK. The experiences of archival volunteers will be consolidated when, towards the conclusion of the project, the applicants, RAs and archival partners will work with volunteers to produce a short good-practice guide, giving exemplars for thoroughly collaborative archival/historical research. The guide will be published online and emailed to all English county archives for their reference.

The project website will foster regular research writing among archival volunteers and provide a forum to host semi-structured online publication by non-academic contributors. This will involve such activities as honing prose composition, reviewing and correcting the work of peer authors, and enabling the production of a body of individual research output. The biographies also raise the profile of ordinary working people in the history of a locality. Landed and institutional power is increasingly set in context as the contribution of their tenants, parishioners, agents, and tradespeople is uncovered. The new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography initiated this expansion of biographical subjects in its drive to incorporate under-represented groups (including women, business figures, labour leaders, and non-metropolitan subjects). This project will extend the democratising effect of this development in biography by identifying actors in local poor-law delivery, specifically the people with temporary power to condition paupers' experience of the law.


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