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.
USING PAUPER LETTERS
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’