‘Naked and starving’: letters tell how English paupers fought for rights 200 years ago
Appeals to parish overseers show how penniless 19th-century families were ‘masters’ at navigating Old English Poor Law
Paupers in the early-19th century had to appeal to authorities in their home parish for poverty relief. Photograph: Rischgitz/Getty Images
They were destitute, their children were starving and their short, pitiful lives were often marred by heartbreak and suffering.
But they knew that, morally, they had rights, and they understood how to make their voices heard.
Now, previously unpublished letters of penniless and disabled paupers living in the early 19th century reveal the sophisticated and powerful rhetoric they used to secure regular welfare payments from parish authorities, despite being barely able to read and write.
The letters, which were sent to the overseer of Kirkby Lonsdale parish between 1809 and 1836, demonstrate how poor families were “masters” at navigating the complexities of the Old English Poor Law and negotiating effectively for long-term financial support.
“It’s the closest you can get to an oral testimony [of these paupers
A view towards the industrial area of Kirkby Lonsdale in an etching dated 1849. Photograph: The Annals of Kirkby Lonsdale
Paupers were forced, through sheer desperation, to write such letters when they became destitute after moving away from their home parish. This is because, under the Old Poor Law, those in need were only allowed to ask for financial assistance from the rate-payers of their home parish and not simply the parish they were living in. Often, it was only by writing humbly to the overseer of their original home parish and demonstrating why, morally, they “deserved” his help that impoverished families could get any relief at all.
“The system makes it difficult for them [to get supportBritish Academy on Christmas Eve in a new book, Navigating the Old English Poor Law, by King and Dr Peter Jones, research associate at the University of Leicester. In total, the two academics analysed 599 pieces of correspondence relating to just 20 poor families from Kirkby Lonsdale. This enabled them to understand not only the rhetorical strategies the paupers employed to convincingly negotiate on their own behalf, but also how they often managed to get friends, advocates and doctors to argue their case and emphasise the moral legitimacy of their claim for support.
One man, who got a splinter in one eye while working in a lime kiln and had a cataract in the other, “pulls every moral lever to get as much welfare as he can”, says King. “You see the way in which he uses his own words, official words and the words of advocates to make a case. And, of course, they give in – they pay his rent and give him an allowance, because he has a moral case. What can you do if a man is blind? You can’t let him starve to death.”
Jones said the letters have made him consider how moral rights are framed within today’s bureaucratised, nationalised welfare system and pity the benefit assessors who, unlike the parish overseers of the past, have no discretion and little power.
“It’s become more and more difficult now for the agents of welfare – the workers who are on the frontline, dealing with the poor – to treat the people in front of them as moral individuals whose needs must be interpreted and responded to. That’s something we’ve lost.”
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