Writing the Lives of the English Poor 1750s-1830s

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The “Old Poor Law”, first passed in 1601, was a series of pieces of legislation to attempt to deal with poverty in England and Wales. It lasted, with amendments, until 1834 when the New Poor Law was finally introduced after growing discontent at the system’s inadequacies.

These laws have been closely studied by historians, because the treatment of the poor gives an indication of wider changes in society. The Old Law covered the period from the end of the Tudors to the birth of capitalism and industrialisation.

Usually these historical studies tend to be ones that begin, and end, with raw statistics. Historians try to draw out a picture from the amount of money paid out to the poor, its increases and decreases. Rarely do the poor themselves get heard and so it is excellent that Steven King’s new book takes as its starting point the voices of the poor, recorded in an immense archive of 26,000 letters sent by claimants to officials. King’s contention is that claiming poor relief “was a process, and at the heart of that process was the act of negotiation”.

Poor people were not passive recipients of charity, but individuals who claimed what they thought was rightfully theirs, and in the process tried to maintain their dignity, self-belief and pride. The process mattered — applicants “knew the stipulations of the Old Poor Law, contested and disputed refusals… wrote in sustained fashion to develop their case… and pulled every lever they could to gain and maintain their relief”.

Each of the letters is unique, and many go to great pains to demonstrate the honesty of their claim, and while undoubtedly some stretch or hide the truth, King concludes that the vast majority are accurate reflections of the situation. An ocean of suffering and poverty is exposed — with letters from people unemployed or underemployed, worried about sick family members or unable to afford the rent. Many letters come from the elderly or people who have sold everything to pay their debts and finally turn to the parish for aid.

King’s book is a detailed textual study of the letters and their language. As such, and disappointingly for me, it has little wider context than the letters. I’d have liked more about what was happening in the economy, how war, failed harvest and industrialisation was transforming the situation for the population. On occasion we see glimpses of wider discontent — one writer mentions that her family are out of work because they were sacked after striking for higher wages.

The book’s detailed focus on the texts themselves will put off many readers, as it is clearly aimed at an academic readership. Nonetheless Steven King’s sympathetic study helps to bring to life the poverty stricken poor — hungry and desperate, but proud and articulate and keen to demand their rights. The exchange of letters also reminded me of what people today have to go through in claiming Universal Credit or applying for PIP; and thus what we have to lose if we do not defend the welfare state.