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.
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