Your Family History - - News - Steven King is Pro­fes­sor of So­cial and Eco­nomic His­tory, and Dr Carol Beard­more a Re­search Fel­low, both at the Uni­ver­sity of Le­ices­ter

Re­search­ing fam­ily trees and fam­ily his­to­ries is com­pelling but also frus­trat­ing when it comes to clo­sure of a his­tory. The ini­tial process is rel­a­tively straight­for­ward in to­day’s dig­i­tal world, es­pe­cially through of­fi­cial cen­suses or bap­tismal cer­tifi­cates. De­spite their im­por­tance in trac­ing who and how many lived in the same house or street, the in­for­ma­tion con­tained within the cen­sus is rel­a­tively ba­sic. The later cen­suses be­came more so­phis­ti­cated, and­might list oc­cu­pa­tion, or sen­sory and in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties, for ex­am­ple. The cen­sus, how­ever, sim­ply gives a brief over­view of the sit­u­a­tion on a par­tic­u­lar night, once ev­ery ten years. To add depth of knowl­edge to aris­to­cratic or gen­try fam­i­lies can be rel­a­tively easy. Find­ing poor rel­a­tives, es­pe­cially where they end up sub­ject to the ten­der mer­cies of the Old and New Poor Laws, is a rather more com­plex mat­ter, and one sub­ject to mul­ti­ple blind al­leys given the fre­quent lack of writ­ten records. Since in sheer sta­tis­ti­cal terms, al­most all of our fam­ily trees must have in­cluded peo­ple who were de­pen­dent on parochial wel­fare at some point, the abil­ity to trace poor rel­a­tives re­ally is an im­por­tant is­sue.

Pauper let­ters pro­vide a way of trac­ing some of the lives of our fam­ily an­ces­tors who came un­der the um­brella or care of the Poor Law au­thor­i­ties. Writ­ten by those who were ‘out of their place’ of set­tle­ment at the time they fell into need, these let­ters defy con­ven­tional wis­dom

Long runs of let­ters al­low the piec­ing to­gether of a fam­ily nar­ra­tive that is not pos­si­ble through the cen­sus records

that the poor were il­lit­er­ate. Their writ­ing may not have been well punc­tu­ated, their gram­mar may have been awry, and peo­ple cer­tainly wrote as they spoke – but they had some­thing that we might style ‘epis­to­lary lit­er­acy’, and did not need to sys­tem­at­i­cally turn to scribes to write on their be­half.


In the past, these let­ters have been used by his­to­ri­ans for a va­ri­ety of ends, es­pe­cially to as­cer­tain at­ti­tudes to the poor law, ex­am­in­ing per­cep­tions sur­round­ing the ‘right to re­lief’, or ex­plor­ing the du­ties un­der­taken by lo­cal of­fi­cials. Im­por­tantly, they of­ten throw light on what re­lief was asked for, rather than just what was granted and recorded in the ac­counts of the over­seer of the poor. The source has, rather in­ex­pli­ca­bly, been ig­nored by many (although not all!) fam­ily his­to­ri­ans and ge­neal­o­gists.

For some parishes (al­ways those that re­ceived let­ters, rather than those from which they were sent), long runs of let­ters ex­ist, and these al­low the piec­ing to­gether of a fam­ily nar­ra­tive over short or longer pe­ri­ods of time in a way that is not pos­si­ble through the cen­sus, parish, school, and other records alone. The his­to­ries and lo­ca­tions of in­di­vid­u­als in such let­ters are im­por­tant for fam­ily his­to­ri­ans, but they also of­ten con­tain much more ex­ten­sive nom­i­nal data: the names of an ad­dressee, names and ages of chil­dren, con­fir­ma­tion of fam­ily deaths, the pres­ence or ab­sence of cousins or other fam­ily mem­bers, and a record of ad­dress changes. This is true where an in­di­vid­ual sent just a sin­gle letter, but the joy of many parish col­lec­tions is that writ­ers might of­ten send 30 or 40 let­ters over what we might loosely term an epis­to­lary ca­reer.

The value of this sort of re­source will be clear to fam­ily his­to­ri­ans. The let­ters are of­ten styled as pe­ti­tions or vouch­ers in record of­fice cat­a­logues or mixed in with other poor law records, so they can be dif­fi­cult to find. The search, how­ever, is worth it: there are around 800 let­ters for Es­sex, more than 2000 for Northamp­ton­shire, and over 4000 for the old coun­ties of Cum­ber­land and West­mor­land. Much more ‘de­tec­tive’ work needs to be un­der­taken, and it is pos­si­ble that tens of thou­sands are wait­ing to be dis­cov­ered. The fol­low­ing sec­tion aims to pro­vide an ex­am­ple of what you might dis­cover about your fam­ily through this re­source.


The Har­ris fam­ily lived in the parish of Isle­worth. Your first en­counter with this fam­ily might have been through an asy­lum ad­mis­sion book. The first letter which sur­vives was writ­ten by the vicar or cu­rate, John Mitchel, in March 1812, to the Overseers of the parish of Greys. Mitchel stated that An­thony Har­ris had a wife and three chil­dren, and had sup­ported his fam­ily through hard work, but had since be­come ‘de­ranged’. A weekly al­lowance of four shillings a week had al­ready been granted, but Har­ris’s pen­chant for wan­der­ing off meant that the was ‘now no longer safe to him­self and oth­ers’. Con­se­quently, Mitchel ar­ranged for Har­ris to be­come an in­pa­tient at St Luke’s Hos­pi­tal. To make mat­ters worse, in Novem­ber 1812, the fam­ily con­tracted small­pox and in Fe­bru­ary 1818, Har­ris’s daugh­ter lost the use of her limbs as a com­pli­ca­tion of the dis­ease. In 1830, he con­tin­ued in St Luke’s Hos­pi­tal for lu­natics, with the parish of Greys pay­ing £8 2s half yearly for his board. This brief sum­mary is just a snip­pet of the de­tail the fam­ily his­to­rian can get from read­ing these let­ters.

Even the short­est of notes, how­ever, should not be over­looked. Two very brief notes, the first from the start of April 1829, to the Overseers of Soul­dern in Ox­ford­shire from those at ‘Cam­pdean’, re­veal that Han­nah Blotheridge – who was known as a quiet and in­dus­tri­ous per­son – had been de­serted by her ‘worth­less hus­band’ and was now in great dis­tress. Her sit­u­a­tion had bene ex­ac­er­bated by the high price of bread and the scarcity of silk with which she had al­ways worked. The sec­ond letter, some five weeks later, demon­strates how the lives of the poor could quickly de­te­ri­o­rate. Han­nah was now very ill; her hus­band only vis­ited her ‘with the in­ten­tion of get­ting some­thing from her’. It was sug­gested that if her parish of set­tle­ment sent money to those of her parish of res­i­dence ‘they would only al­low what is right’. To add to her dif­fi­cul­ties, it was noted by the Overseers that Han­nah had no friends.


The ma­jor­ity of those who wrote let­ters did so be­cause of sick­ness. Their let­ters show us that sick­ness was not a static idea but some­thing that moved and re­shaped with time and cir­cum­stance. Pau­pers would pro­vide ev­i­dence of their dis­eases and in­juries, and the progress of their ail­ments, within their cor­re­spon­dence. The lan­guage used to de­scribe ill­ness might be spe­cific, list­ing, for ex­am­ple, rheuma­tism, small­pox, fever, blind­ness or stroke. But it could also be more gen­eral, men­tion­ing be­ing dis­tressed, af­flicted, con­fined to bed, hav­ing a loss of use of limbs, or be­ing very weak – and there were many vari­ants thereof. In Jan­uary 1833, for ex­am­ple, El­iz­a­beth Brown sought help, stat­ing, ‘I am urged by the stress and suf­fer­ing that I en­dure… as my Eyes are dread­fully in­flamed so that I am to­tally blind’ in a letter writ­ten on her be­half by her land­lord, Sally Web­ster of Gosport, to Brown’s home parish of Lyn­d­hurst. This was fol­lowed up in a fur­ther letter, in which she noted, ‘I am dis­tracted with an ob­sti­nate cough, an Asthma and Blind from my birth, and 74 years of Age’.

A much vaguer letter was sent by Ja­cob Curchin of Wis­bech, Cam­bridgeshire, in July 1824. He sim­ply wrote, ‘I am very ill and can­not work but my mas­ter will wait while I get bet­ter’. In Septem­ber, he wrote again, ask­ing for help as his wife, Sophia, was preg­nant but did not have a bed to lie in. The parish re­sponded by send­ing 30 shillings; a fur­ther £2 was promised by the vestry. The baby was born in De­cem­ber, and Ja­cob again sought money to help re­lieve their dis­tress. The Curchins con­tin­ued to seek help. In July 1825, Sophia Curchin wrote that her hus­band was ‘very ill’, and de­scribed his con­sti­tu­tion as ‘very bad’. By June 1826, Sophia was again about to give birth – to baby num­ber five. This pat­tern of vague ill­ness and preg­nancy con­tin­ued in nu­mer­ous let­ters over a three­year pe­riod. While there is noth­ing spe­cific in the let­ters, the parish of Thrap­ston con­tin­ued to sup­port the fam­ily through a range of pay­ments, giv­ing fam­ily his­to­ri­ans an un­par­al­leled win­dow into the lives of what might be their very or­di­nary and very poor rel­a­tives.

There is, at present, no com­pre­hen­sive list or cat­a­logue of pauper let­ters. Once a fam­ily mem­ber has been iden­ti­fied in a cen­sus, work­house, almshouse, or school log book, it is a case of hav­ing to shift through the in­for­ma­tion held un­der the poor law records in your lo­cal or county ar­chive. Northamp­ton­shire Record Of­fice, for ex­am­ple, lists these as bun­dles of Overseers’ Re­ceipted Vouch­ers. An­ces­try holds var­i­ous dig­i­tal, search­able, Poor Law bun­dles. That of Dorset con­tains, for ex­am­ple, vestry min­utes and overseers’ ac­counts. This may be the start­ing point for a deeper in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Poor Law Union records. Source books such as Es­sex Pauper Let­ters 1731–1837 (edited by Thomas Sokoll, OUP/Bri­tish Academy, 2001) and the vol­umes of Nar­ra­tives of the Poor in Eigh­teen­thCen­tury Bri­tain (Rout­ledge) may also be use­ful. There is no doubt that at present, this type of re­search can be time­con­sum­ing, but the re­wards of find­ing a pauper letter that re­lates to your town, vil­lage, or fam­ily, is worth the ef­fort.

To add to her dif­fi­cul­ties, it was noted by the Overseers that Han­nah had no friends

A satir­i­cal sketch of an Over­seer of the Poor by ‘Phiz’

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