Petitions of the People?

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jonathan Healey, University Lecturer in English Local and Social History at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Focusing on petitions for poor relief, Jonathan further expands our discussion of early modern petitions and their value to practitioners of history ‘from below’, whilst at the same time raising crucial questions about their authorship and the extent to which they can really be considered the ‘authentic’ voices of the people.

Jonathan Healey

In 1699, Richard Tyldesley, a labourer from Little Hulton, Lancashire, presented at petition at Wigan Sessions.

It was on behalf of his neighbour Thomas Gerrard, and it described the latter man’s poverty in vivid terms.

‘Thomas Gerrard’, he wrote, ‘is now and hath lain sick in bed this five weekes, his wife is now in child bed, was allmost recovered, but now relapsed. The husband and new borne child lye in one poor bed the 3 children scarce recovered of sicknes. There is neither meat nor fire in the house.’

All they had received in poor relief was six shillings, ‘which will not pay and maintaine a person to looke after them’, and had not their neighbours offered their charity, ‘they had been all starved & miserably perished in the house before this’.

But charity had its limits, especially – though this was unsaid – at a time of high prices such as 1699, so ‘now their charity begins to slacken so that tis impossible they should any one of ‘em subsist 3 dayes longer but will miserably perish for want of releefe’.

Tyldesely’s petition, which was successful, is one of thousands of similar ones that survive in the Lancashire Archives. They begin in 1626, and cover the period of up to around 1710. It’s part of an elaborate process: the one by which poor relief – in what was the first national system of tax-funded poor relief in the world – was allocated. In the discussions about who was deserving or help – as Steve Hindle has eloquently argued – petitions like these show that the poor themselves were part of the conversation. They were active. They appealed. They negotiated. The Lancashire petitions give us a window onto these processes, and these negotiations.

They are, in many ways, quite simple documents. They asked for relief, gave some reason for why it was needed, and – sometimes – gave snippets of other information. Something about how the petitioner had tried to ‘make shift’, for example, or something about their bad treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Ostensibly, they are an ‘authentic’ voice of the poor. And yet, peel back the layers, and some considerable complications emerge. Continue reading

The beggar and the rich man: picturing the holy poor in Tudor and early Stuart England

Brodie Waddell

R.H. Tawney claimed that ‘the sixteenth century lives in terror of the tramp’. He wrote that over a hundred years ago, but more recent research has largely confirmed Tawney’s contention that Tudor and early Stuart England was a society deeply anxious about the movements of the ‘masterless’ poor.

As a result, it is not difficult to find fearful, satirical or insulting depictions of ‘vagrants’ and ‘vagabonds’ from this period. However, just as it can be hard to find images of early modern working women, it is also rare to come across sympathetic pictures of the poor. Yet, we know that many people continued to see at least some beggars as victims who deserved compassion and charity.

The one particularly sympathetic portrayal of poverty that does appear repeatedly in early modern culture is the biblical story of Lazarus and Dives. In this parable, Jesus tells of a diseased beggar, Lazarus, who arrives at the door of a rich man, Dives, to beg for the crumbs off his table. Dives refuses and is condemned to hellfire while Lazarus dies and is carried to heaven by the angels.

Anon, Lazarus and Dives, Spinola Book of Hours (c1510) Continue reading

Measuring misery?

Brodie Waddell

In the late sixteenth century, the famed Elizabethan poor laws commanded every parish in the kingdom to relieve their poor residents though local taxation rather than private charity. By around 1800, England’s parishes were spending more than £4 million per year on poor relief.

One of my current research projects is an attempt to examine the nature of this massive expansion in formal, institutional support for the most vulnerable members of the community – that is to say, the rise of the so-called ‘parish welfare state’. I’ve been doing this by looking at the amounts spent by local officers – the overseers of the poor – in a set of sample parishes from across the country. Jonathan Healey at Oxford has been doing much the same, and we have recently decided to work together, combine our data and attempt to come up with a new analysis of this oft-noted development.

I will be discussing some of the early findings from this project at a talk on Friday, February 28th, at the Institute for Historical Research in London, so please do come along if you are interested. However, I thought I might offer one image from the talk here as I think it raises some potentially interesting questions.

Poor relief spending, 1600-1750 (81 parishes, 24-02-14)What you see above is an estimate for national annual spending on poor relief based on my sample of 81 parishes. There are some significant methodological problems with these estimates – especially for the first few decades – that I will discuss in my talk. But, for the sake of argument, if we assume that this is actually an accurate measure of relief spending in England, the question then becomes: What does this tell us?

It seems to tell us that there was not simply steady growth in relief in the 17th and 18th centuries. Instead, we see periods of extraordinary expansion, of stability and of retrenchment. We also seem to see a shift in the trajectory of the rise sometime in the decades around 1700, when growth seems to have accelerated markedly.

Yet, this graph is also extremely opaque. There is much that it does not tell us.

For example, what about non-parochial poor relief, such as formal charitable bequests or informal personal giving? Did this follow a similar pattern? Or was it working in the opposite direction?

What, too, about regional differences? Was there similar growth in sleepy country villages as in booming industrial towns?

Even more significantly, this graph tells us little about why parish welfare was expanding in this period. Although we can speculate based what we know about the periods of greatest expansion, the raw numbers in themselves cannot reveal short-term economic pressures or changing legal contexts.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this bare line may obscure the nature of relief, which was after all a relationship between human beings who normally knew each other – not simply an anonymous financial transaction.

Did those who received relief actively demand it or passively accept it? Did those who distributed it do so gladly, grudgingly or fearfully – as an act of Christian charity, or out of mere legal obligation, or to stave of the threat of disorder? Was such relief considered the poor’s rightful entitlement? Or was it conditional upon their obedience and reputation for morality?

In other words, whilst this chart may offer a useful bird’s eye view of the emergence of perhaps the world’s first nation-wide welfare system, its lack of a human dimension may also actively mislead us about the nature of this system. For that, we must look to records in which real individuals – such as Mary Stevens, the 101-year-old vagrant – step out of the page to meet us.


The 81 sample parishes upon which the chart is based include 24 whose totals were generously provided by other historians. I am therefore very grateful to the late Joan Kent via Steve King (for 9 parishes), Henry French (7 parishes), Jeremy Boulton (3 parishes), Tim Hitchcock & Bob Shoemaker (2 parishes), John Broad (2 parishes) and Steve Hindle (1 parish). If you or any of your colleagues have data on parish poor relief before 1834 that you are willing to share, please get in touch!

Mary Stevens, vagrant, age 101

Brodie Waddell

On the fourth of April 1692, the city fathers of Winchester assembled at one of their splendid quarterly courts to judge criminals, hear disputes and resolve pressing civic concerns. As was often the case, one of the poor souls who found herself standing before them was an alleged vagrant. The magistrates probably examined dozens of vagrants in a typical year, but this one was a bit different – she was over 100 years old.

From Wenceslaus Hollar, ‘Men and Women Beggars’ (1625-77)

From Wenceslaus Hollar, ‘Men and Women Beggars’ (1625-77)

The clerk described her as ‘Mary Stevens a Vagrant aged about 101 yeares’ and noted that she swore ‘upon her oath that she was born neare the College of Winchester (as she often had heard her Father say)’.

In other words, this was a woman had apparently been born sometime around 1591, in the final decade of the reign of Elizabeth I, only a few streets away from the court where she now stood. She had outlived four monarchs and Oliver Cromwell. She had survived a decade of civil wars, another decade of republican rule, the country’s last great visitation of the plague, and then yet another revolution only three years earlier. And, given her description as a ‘vagrant’, she had probably spent many months or years on the road and seen the effects of these upheavals with her own eyes. Yet here she was, back in Winchester.

So why had she come back? The examination does not tell us. Perhaps she had come on her own accord. Or perhaps had been sent back from somewhere further afield, whether a neighbouring village or halfway across the country.

This wouldn’t have been unusual. Beggars and paupers were regularly seized by the constables and brought before the local Justices of the Peace. If they were accused of ‘vagrancy’ – a criminal offence usually defined as ‘wandering and begging’ – they could be punished by whipping or imprisonment in the local house of correction, before being expelled to their place of birth. In other cases, they might be defined as one of the ‘deserving poor’ and escape punishment, but still be sent to a ‘home’ they had long-since abandoned.

What we do know is that once Mary Stevens had arrived back in the area, she was then sent back and forth between the city of Winchester and the parish of ‘little St Swigins’ (St Swithuns) next to Winchester College, presumably just outside the city’s jurisdiction. Neither the city nor St Swithuns wanted to pay the cost of supporting her.

We can only hope that the new order issued by the Winchester authorities – sending her to St Swithuns ‘to be provided for and setled according to Law’ – was the conclusion of this petty jurisdictional argument. There she may have finally become a ‘lawfull & settled Inhabitant’.

With luck, Mary Stevens’ days of ‘wandering and begging’ were over. At age 101, she deserved a rest.

Mary Stevens, vagrant, age 101 IMG_3977Source
Hampshire Record Office, W/D3/1, fol. 79: examination of Mary Stevens, 4 April 1692

Some Further Reading
A.L. Beier, Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England 1560-1640 (1985)
Steve Hindle, On the Parish? The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c. 1550-1750 (2004)
David Hitchcock (ed.), ‘Poverty and Mobility in England, 1600-1850’, Rural History, 24:1 (April 2013), special issue.
Tim Hitchcock, Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London (2004)