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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Title A Top Trumps game based on people mentioned in overseers' vouchers up to 1834 
Description This is a game for adults or children based on the popular Top Trumps series. It features 33 game-play cards, 30 of which feature characters found in overseers' vouchers in Cumbria, East Sussex, and Staffordshire (ten from each county), spanning the social spectrum from professional men to dead paupers. Three additional 'wildcards' allow players to find other characters via our project website and add them to the card set. Each named person is awarded a numeric score against five criteria, namely life story (scoring 1 to 5, on the strength of the partial biography determinable via the vouchers), agency (scoring as a percentage, according to the person's anticipated ability to act with autonomy), surname rarity (scored up to 1000, based loosely on data publicly available from the Forebears website), persistence (scored 1-10, loosely based on the number of decades we know that they lived or were present in the vouchers), and poverty rating (scored 1-30, where each character has a unique score). Every card is illustrated with a date-appropriate and socially-congruent image of a person, typically selected from among the open-access images available from the Wellcome Trust collection's website. Copies of the game have been distributed to the project participants and volunteers, and ten packs have been given away to the readers of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. Remaining copies will be distributed at our end-of-project events in 2021, presuming these can be held in person. If not, the remaining copies will be given to the participating archives, to distribute at their discretion as illustrative of the potential of volunteer collaborations. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2020 
Impact The game and project were both promoted via an article in the June 2020 edition of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? magazine (circulation c.13, 500). 
Title DIY archiving 
Description A device which combines the functionality of a 'selfie stick' with a clamp to secure the stick to the table of an archive office. This enables archive users to take multiple digital photographs of archival sources quickly, without specialised equipment, and without risking backache. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2018 
Impact Examples of the DIY archiving tool have been sent to anyone who requests one. 
Description 1. There were patterns to the distribution of parish business to tradespeople under the Old Poor Law. In particular individuals struggling financially, and businesses at risk of failure, benefited as employees of or suppliers to the poor law.
2. There were more parishes generating evidence of parish commissioning in Cumbria than we had anticipated.
3. That receipts providing evidence of parish spending before 1834 can support an engaging series of biographical and other blog posts.
4. The receipts for East Hoathly parish have ALL been entered in the project database, enabling collaboration with researchers working on the diary of Thomas Turner (a shopkeeper, parish overseer of the poor, and diarist of the eighteenth century).
Exploitation Route These findings may be used by genealogists and local historians to amplify their understanding of family and local history. They may also be used by academic historians working on the diary of Thomas Turner. NB a Follow-on-Funding award has been made in respect of this project, to enable the East Sussex team to develop the software potential of our project data-collection website and its associated app.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The research activity (rather than the findings) has generated participant activity in county archives by volunteers. Up to thirty people across three county archives offices attend weekly volunteer sessions and give their time and expertise to the project. Working with academics has fostered research skills and stimulated writing skills, because volunteers were treated as researchers in their own right. Volunteers report intellectual stimulation, a sense of achievement/feeling appreciated, and the ability to engage with their surroundings in a more informed way. Further, volunteers have created social networks that they value as an important benefit of participating: 'you gain the social interaction, making friends with the other volunteers'. Consistent academic input is what marks out these projects from other experiences of volunteering, since 'no-one was ever too busy to help you'. Volunteers have authored blog posts and will be contributors of short pieces to the open-access Royal Historical Society book of the poor-law project (under contract). Sections of the data are being used by academic colleagues in teaching. The experience of data collection resulted in a successful application for Follow on Funding to evolve the project app for general usage by historians (lay and professional). Project RA Collinge has given Lunar lecture in Lichfield on the topic of his published research on workhouse gardens, 28 January 2021.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Archival Volunteering for Research
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Description Capturing the Past
Amount £78,061 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/V008064/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2021 
End 05/2022
Title Data-capture tool 
Description The project team devised a web-based data-capture tool for the volunteers to input data from overseers' vouchers to a database. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Data will be gathered using this tool until mid-late 2020 (and possibly beyond). 
Description Archival workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Archival workshops were held in Stafford on 12 November 2018 and 30 November 2019, and in Carlisle on 5 December 2018 and 27 November 2019. At each event there were three talks by academics or postdoctoral researchers, and a chance for participants to browse manuscript sources held by the archives services of Staffordshire and Cumbria respectively.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018,2019
Description Archival workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact An archival workshop about parish records was held at The Keep, the East Sussex archives, on 22 January 2019. The activities were run by Elizabeth Hughes, former county archivist at East Sussex and from 2018 a volunteer for the Small Bills project.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019