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How the poor contested the New Poor Law of 1834


What did it feel like to be poor in Victorian Britain? Perhaps that seems an obvious question – after all, depictions of poverty in the period are ubiquitous from the works of Charles Dickens to the paintings of John Everett Millais.

But there is in fact very little that comes down to us from those who were poor or that describes their own experiences in their own words.

Most of the records that tell us about poverty in this period, the new Poor Law and the rise of the workhouse, are all created by the legislators or the administrators; and all we have is a very top-down view. 

This deficit is being addressed by a new Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded collaboration between the National Archives and the University of Leicester.

“We want to determine a history of nineteenth century welfare from below,” says Paul Carter, Principal Records Specialist at the National Archives and one of two leads on In Their Own Write: Contesting the New Poor Law 1834-1900.

“What's been missing so far is: how those in receipt of relief feel? What did they think about it all?

“Today, with Twitter and social media, and people being a bit more familiar with how to talk to Government departments, it's easy to see what people think. But this wasn't the case in the nineteenth century and we want to know how did people - who didn't even have the vote - interact with power on this issue.”

Paul Carter and his co-lead Professor Steve King have identified a set of records at the National Archives that includes hundreds of thousands of letters from poor people - some who were in the workhouse, some being given outdoor relief, along with some who have be turned down for relief and were writing to raise their cases.

“What is quite critical for us is that, in 1834 they set up the Poor Law commission, which developed into the Poor Law Board and then into the Local Government Board,” explains Paul Carter. “But, as far as the records are concerned, you have one set of records running through all of this. And they are all bound up together – all the records from over 600 Poor Law Unions across Britain.”

They look like books, but are in fact made up of individual letters and, as they are bound together, letters haven't been weeded out. “Everything has stayed with us,” says Paul Carter. “There may be only a small number of letters in each volume, but given the sheer size of the collection - over 16000 volumes – that adds up to a lot of letters and an amazing resource.”

Also included are witness statements and letters written by those who have taken up the cause of the poor.

“There's some really marvellous stuff in there,” says Paul Carter. “And it hasn't been sorted through systematically before. We want to find out how many letters there are, where they are coming from, what concerns are they raising; does this change over time? And finally, what effect does writing have?”

Although the project only began in January 2018 there are already interesting trends emerging.

“It's remarkable to see people writing in and quoting the law back at the administrators; quoting the rules and regulations,” says Paul Carter. “They knew the system, they knew the processes and were prepared to assert themselves when they felt that they had been wronged. These were obviously important things to know if you were poor.

“I think that this is why people write in in their thousands – because they knew it worked. We are looking to establish case studies that we can follow through from a complaint to some kind of resolution.”

Interestingly, many correspondents are keen to set out their respectability; they talk about military service or raising a family without ever claiming relief before. They use rhetoric to make their case.

“Over time these letters stop being a formal petition and move towards being more of a normal letter – they are written in more of a 'middle class' style; more as equals. We'd like to find out more about this as we properly analyse the resource.”

Another interesting point is that some Poor Law Unions are generating many hundreds of letters, while some others generate very few. Why is this? Because all the letters were all bound together, it isn't a simple question of historical survival. 

From the start In Their Own Write intends to share its results with the general public across the country through local museums.

“We have contacted a number of Workhouse Museums and said that we would like to work with them, because we are generating a lot of local, intimate material that they could use,” says Paul Carter.

“We have already run public events and hope to run more. We want to feed our research into these places because they can really help with impact. We really see museums as critical co-workers who can really help people find out more about another side of what was relatively recent history.”

Header image copyright: Fondo Antiguo on Flickr by 2.0

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