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Poverty and poor relief: a research guide

Connected Histories includes a wide range of sources reflecting on both the distribution of wealth and hence poverty; and on the distribution of poor relief and charity. The most substantial single body of records related to these themes, can be found in London Lives, 1690-1800 collection, but taxation records, policy discussions and anecdotal descriptions of poverty and relief can be found in most of the records searchable through Connected Histories.

Contents of this article

Poverty

Although absolute poverty and physical starvation were not unknown in early modern Britain (with the 16th and early 17th century marked by subsistence crises in which people literally starved to death), the most effective measure of poverty in this period and in the nineteenth century, lay in the records of taxation, and hence of the distribution of wealth. Several volumes of rates - taxation raised on the basis of a notional property rental value can be accessed from both London Lives, 1690-1800 and British History Online; while the Parliamentary Papers include numerous reports including national figures for both economic conditions and the distribution of relief.

Casual charities, and increasingly formal and associational charities also played a significant role in the relief of the poor, and evidence relating to charities can be found in Guild and hospital records, as well as in personal account books, examples of each of which can be found through Connected Histories.

In addition, Connected Histories also includes the most comprehensive survey of poverty in London ever created. In the Charles Booth Online Archive of the 1890s, we have detailed accounts of the relative wealth and living conditions of all classes of individuals across the metropolis. Also available to search is Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online incorporating some 20,000 pamphlets, many of which discuss issues of poverty and its relief.

Poor relief

The agency charged with the distribution of poor relief in Britain prior to 1834 was the parish. From the late 16th century onwards, each parish in England and Wales was required to raise an equal pound rate on its inhabitants, and to use the resulting income to relieve poverty and distress. In practise the implementation of this system was patchy and haphazard, with older forms of neighbourly charity surviving in many areas throughout the 18th century.

Through the Parliamentary Papers Connected Histories provides access to a huge collection of policy documents, bills and reports relating to poverty and relief, including the great parliamentary enquiries of the 19th century, that encompass both national policy, and detailed data on expenditure in individual parishes. Policy documents and discussions are also recorded in the Calendars of State Papers in British History Online. The implementation of these polices can also be traced in Vestry Minutes and Sessions Papers available through London Lives, 1690-1800.

Connected Histories also allows access to the records of several parishes, almost exclusively in London. The London Lives, 1690-1800 site gives access to the records of administration and distribution of parish relief for three London parishes: St Dionis Backchurch, St Botolph Aldgate and St Clement Danes. It also includes record series such as the workhouse registers of St Martin in the Fields and St Luke's Chelsea. In addition, British History Online includes a range of records that again reflect on this theme, including the notebook of the master of a Quaker workhouse, and calendars of the records of Quarter Sessions for Middlesex, charged with managing parochial relief.

As a part of the administration of the system of parish settlement, which, from the 1660s assigned a home parish to each person, a large number of settlement, and latterly bastardy examinations were created, and survive in the archives searchable through Connected Histories. These examinations provide detailed evidence about migration, employment and family formation among the very poor.

Public debate

Poverty and its relief formed an important component of public discussion, and work on these themes can be found in the newspapers included in British Newspapers 1600-1900. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries issues around poverty policy were also widely discussed in an extensive pamphlet literature, and the 19th century element of these debates is searchable here through the Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online. Substantial evidence in the form of detailed reports and returns, can also be found in the Parliamentary Papers. And poverty and social order forms a significant theme in the work of Jeremy Bentham, searchable through the Transcribe Bentham site.

Anecdote and life histories

Poverty was not a simple administrative phenomenon - though the archives of early modern governance privileges this aspect. It was a lived experience of hunger, deprivation and social interaction that is perhaps most fully evidenced in the words of those who suffered it. Connected Histories allows searching on several sources which contain evidence of this sort. In particular the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online allows you to locate incidences of poverty reported as a part of the criminal justice process, while also giving you access to the Ordinary of Newgate's Accounts of the lives of those executed at Tyburn. Poverty and its resulting desperation formed a recurring theme in these lives. Beyond this, newspapers, pamphlets, sessions papers, and parliamentary reports can all include individual reports of personal experience; while Origins.net is designed to facilitate the reconstruction of non-elite lives.

Strengths and weaknesses

The inclusion of the Parliamentary Papers and the Calendars of State Papers with British Newspapers 1600-1900, London Lives, 1690-1800, Nineteenth-Century Pamphlets Online, the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online and the Charles Booth Online Archive in a cross searchable context provides a unique resource for the study of both the histories of poor relief policy, and poverty itself. These materials are particularly rich in relation to national policy in the late 18th and 19th century, and to poverty in London during the 18th century.

The site is less helpful for the study of non-metropolitan conditions and developments, and while the Parliamentary Papers, provide one lens with which to examine this area, there is a distinct paucity of local records available in an electronic form.

Search strategies

If you are interested in searching for living conditions and poverty in a specific place you should begin by undertaking Place searches on local place names; but if your research is focused on aspects of poverty and relief more generally, a key word search strategy will generate large numbers of resources.

Suggested keywords and phrases include:

  • poor
  • vagrant
  • vagabond
  • ragged
  • about the streets
  • necessities of life
  • common necessities
  • alms

Further reading

  • A. L. Beier, Masterless Men: the Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640 (London, 1985).
  • A. Eccles, Vagrancy in Law and Practice Under the Old Poor Law (Farnham, 2012).
  • D. Green, Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790-1870 (Farnham, 2010).
  • S. Hindle, On the Parish: the Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c.1550-1750 (Oxford, 2004).
  • T. Hitchcock Down and Out in 18th-Century London (London, 2004).
  • S. King, Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700-1850 (Manchester, 2000).
  • P. Slack, From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England (Oxford, 1998; 1999).

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