Old Age in Poverty: The Record of Essex Pauper Letters, 1780–1834

  • Thomas Sokoll


Honnerd Genteelmen

I Susannah Halls am very Sorrey to Troubel you with this as I sent before And once troubeled the Church warden to write to you to say I am still living But have had no answer to either I was Afraid they miscaried Genteelmen you Can not Think how bad I have wanted my Weekley alowence I have been very bad in Deed not abel to keep up and am so now Genteelmen had I got my alowen now Hear I Can Truley say not one Farhing is mine I have Got in Det think Gentelmen on my Age is very Grate I think I am 88 years old I think I Shall not Trouble you much longer I am so very feable but Gods will be done I Must ware my apointed time let It be Long or Sort Genteelmen I receved my last alowence very Saft up to Febuary 5th 1824 and I do return you all my sincer Thanks for all your kindness to me a poor helpless Creature I hope Genteelmen you will be So kind as to write as Soon as posebl you Can you now not how Much I wante it Tho its not in my power to reward you Genteelmen I sincerley beg of God to return it to you Ten fould I remaine your poor humble parishner Susannah Halls.

This letter was written on 21 June 1824. Susannah Halls lived in St Nicholas parish, Ipswich, but the letter was addressed and sent to the overseers of the poor at Chelmsford, because that was the place where she had her settlement and from which she received her allowance.1


Home Parish Host Parish British Academy Elderly Poor Early Industrial 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    For working-class autobiographies, we have the anthologies edited by J. Burnett, Useful Toil. Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977); Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), and the masterly analysis byGoogle Scholar
  2. D. Vincent, Bread, Knowledge and Freedom. A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (London: Europa Publications, 1981). Similar standard works could be named for other countries, likeGoogle Scholar
  3. Wolfgang Emmerich, Proletarische Lebensläufe. Autobiographische Dokumente zur Enstehung der Zweiten Kultur in Deutschland, 2 vols (Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1974–5), for Germany. For threatening letters, see the seminal contribution byGoogle Scholar
  4. E.P. Thompson, ‘The Crime of Anonymity’, in D. Hay et al., Albion’s Fatal Tree. Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), pp.255–344 (with selected pieces, pp.309–44). Famous analyses of personal testimonies in legal records includeGoogle Scholar
  5. A. Farge and M. Foucault, Le Désordre des families. Lettres de cachet des Archives de la Bastille (Paris: Gallimard, 1982) andGoogle Scholar
  6. N.Z. Davis, Fiction in the Archives. Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    K.D.M. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor. Social Change and Agrarian England 1660–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 6.
    J.S. Taylor, Poverty, Migration, and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution. Sojourners’ Narratives (Palo Alto, California: Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, 1989).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    For a first attempt at a literary critique of pauper letters, see T. Sokoll, ‘Sprechende Briefe: Englische Armenbriefe, 1750–1850’, in W. Schulze (ed.), Ego-Dokumente. Annäherungen an den Menschen in der Geschichte (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1995). An extended English version of that paper will be found in A. Digby, J. Innes and R.M. Smith (eds), Poverty and Relief in England from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    A settlement certificate made no difference in this respect. For if paupers had moved with a settlement certificate from their home parish, this only meant that the overseers of the ‘host’ parish had not been able to send (or remove) them on their arrival (which, until 1795, they could do if the paupers had no certificate), but could (or rather should) only do so when they became chargeable. Likewise, the extension (in 1795) of the latter provision to all paupers, including those travelling without a settlement certificate, made no difference, since the universal application of the principle ‘removable only if chargeable’ implied the removal of ‘alien’ paupers in need of relief to their place of settlement. In other words, the settlement laws never provided for the relief of a pauper in a parish other than that of his or her settlement. The best account of complicated provisions and the practical effects of the settlement laws is J.S. Taylor, ‘The Impact of Pauper Settlement 1691–1834’, Past and Present 73 (1976), 42–74; for the pre-1795 situation, see also the lucid sketch byCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Paul Slack, The English Poor Law 1531–1782 (London: Macmillan, 1990), pp.35–9.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    J.S. Taylor, ‘A Different Kind of Speenhamland: Nonresident Relief in the Industrial Revolution’, Journal of British Studies 30 (1991), 183–208 (the quotation: 184); Taylor, Poverty, Migration, and Settlement in the Industrial Revolution. There is also a brief discussion inCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. G.R. Boyer, An Economic History of the English Poor Law, 1750–1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp.257–9. The notable exception to the neglect of the issue in the older literature isGoogle Scholar
  14. E.M. Hampson, ‘Settlement and Removal in Cambridgeshire, 1662–1834’, Cambridge Historical Journal 2 (1926–8), 287–9;Google Scholar
  15. E.M. Hampson, The Treatment of Poverty in Cambridgeshire 1597–1834 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934), pp.148–51.Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    N. Landau, ‘The Laws of Settlement and the Surveillance of Immigration in Eighteenth-century Kent’, Continuity and Change 3 (1988), 391–420;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. K.D.M. Snell, ‘Pauper Settlement and the Right to Poor Relief in England and Wales’, Continuity and Change 6 (1991), 375–415;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. N. Landau, ‘The Eighteenth-century Context of the Laws of Settlement’, Continuity and Change 6 (1991), 417–39;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. K.D.M. Snell, ‘Settlement, Poor Law and the Rural Historian: New Approaches and Opportunities’, Rural History 3 (1992), 145–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. 11.
    The rather informal tone of English pauper letters is in sharp contrast to records of that kind from other countries. German pauper letters, for example, are extremely formal, abounding with deferential phraseology and all sorts of epistolary conventions. See J. Karweick, ‘“Tiefgebeugt von Nahrungssorgen und Gram”. Schreiben an Behörden’, in S. Grosse et al., ‘Denn das Schreiben gehört nicht zu meiner täglichen Beschäftigung’. Der Alltag Kleiner Leute in Bittschriften, Briefen und Berichten aus dem 19. Jahrhundert. Ein Lesebuch (Bonn: Dietz 1989), pp.17–87, 188–89, especially the applications for poor relief to the magistrate of the town of Essen for 1804–5 (pp.32–40).Google Scholar
  21. 16.
    Lord Ernie, English Farming Past and Present, 6th edn, introd. G.E. Fussel and O.R. McGregor (London: Longman, 1961), p.314;Google Scholar
  22. T.L. Richardson, ‘Agricultural Labourers’ Wages and the Cost of Living in Essex, 1790–1834: a Contribution to the Standard of Living Debate’, in B.A. Holderness and M. Turner (eds), Land, Labour and Agriculture, 1790–1920. Essays for Gordon Mingay (London: Hambledon, 1991), pp.69–90.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    R. Chartier, ‘The Practical Impact of Writing’, in P. Ariès and G. Duby (eds), The History of Private Life, vol. 3: R. Chartier (ed.), Renaissance to Enlightenment (London: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp.111–59, 615–17 (the title is misleading, as Chartier deals almost exclusively with the practices of reading);Google Scholar
  24. R. Chartier, ‘Leisure and Sociability. Reading Aloud in Early Modern Europe’, in S. Zimmermann and R. Weissmann (eds), Urban Life in the Renaissance (London and Toronto: Associate University Press, 1989), pp.103–20 [Google Scholar
  25. R. Chartier, ‘Muße and Geselligkeit. Lautes Lesen im Europa der Neuzeit’, in R. Chartier, Lesewelten. Buch und Lektüre in der frühen Neuzeit (Frankfurt and New York: Campus, 1990), pp.146–68].Google Scholar
  26. 21.
    P. Burke, ‘Introduction’, in P. Burke and R. Porter (eds), The Social History of Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.10.Google Scholar
  27. 22.
    For a brilliant survey of the historical analysis of the dialectics of orality and literacy, see W.J. Ong, Orality and Literacy. The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982). A wide range of material is provided inCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. L. Kuchenbuch, T. Sokoll et al., Einführungskurs Alteuropäische Schriftlichkeit (Hagen: FernUniversität Hagen, 1988).Google Scholar
  29. 23.
    R.S. Schofield, ‘Dimensions of Illiteracy, 1750–1850’, Explorations in Economic History 10 (1972/3), 450. In counties like Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, the level of literacy was of course lower. SeeGoogle Scholar
  30. W.B. Stephens, Education, Literacy and Society, 1830–1870. The Geography of Diversiry in Provincial England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987), pp.79–81. For the European comparison, seeGoogle Scholar
  31. C.M. Cipolla, Literacy and Development in the West (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), Chap. 3 and statistical appendix;Google Scholar
  32. H.J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy. Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture and Society (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), Chap. 6.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    P. Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (London: Longman, 1988), p.85.Google Scholar
  34. 35.
    T. Sokoll, ‘The Pauper Household Small and Simple? The Evidence from Listings of Inhabitants and Pauper Lists of Early Modern England Reassessed’, Ethnologia Europaea 17 (1987), 30–2;Google Scholar
  35. T. Sokoll, Household and Family Among the Poor: the Case of Two Essex Communities in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1993), pp.59–74.Google Scholar
  36. 36.
    Sokoll, Household and Family Among the Poor, Chaps 6, 9 and 10; T. Sokoll, ‘The Household Position of Elderly Widows in Poverty: Evidence from Two English Communities in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries’, in J. Henderson and R. Wall (eds), Poor Women and Children in the Past (London: Routledge, 1994), pp.207–24. For Laslett’s ‘rule’, seeGoogle Scholar
  37. P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost — Further Explored (London: Methuen, 1983), p.46 (the point was already made in the first edition of 1965).Google Scholar
  38. 37.
    H. Medick, ‘The Proto-industrial Family Economy: the Structural Function of Household and Family during the Transition from Peasant Society to Industrial Capitalism’, Social History 1 (1976), 308–9. It should be noted, however, that for the evidence on householding patterns of elderly paupers to be properly understood it needs to be judged against the evidence on the living arrangements of elderly people in general. The latter is still rather limited itself, but some material may be found inCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. R. Wall, ‘Residential Isolation of the Elderly: a Comparison over Time’, Ageing and Society 4 (1984), 483–503;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. P. Laslett, A Fresh Map of Life. The Emergence of the Third Age (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), pp.111–15;Google Scholar
  41. R. Wall, ‘Elderly Persons and Members of their Households in England and Wales from Preindustrial Times to the Present’, in D.I. Kertzer and P. Laslett (eds), Aging in the Past: Demography, Society, and Old Age (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), pp.81–106; andGoogle Scholar
  42. J. Ehmer, Sozialgeschichte des Alters (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990), pp.177–87.Google Scholar
  43. 38.
    S.G. and E.O.A. Checkland (eds), The Poor Law Report of 1834 (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974), p.115.Google Scholar
  44. 39.
    ERO D/P 138/18/1+11, Colchester St James overseers’ correspondence, 1810–33, letter of 15/10/1810. On later debates concerning the supposedly ‘natural’ duty of inter-generational assistance, especially of children towards their parents, see M. Anderson, ‘The Impact on the Family Relationships of the Elderly of Changes since Victorian Times in Governmental Income Maintenance Provision’, in E. Shanas and M.B. Sussman (eds), Family, Bureaucracy and the Elderly (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1977), pp.36–59;Google Scholar
  45. M.A. Crowther, ‘Family Responsibility and State Responsibility in Britain Before the Welfare State’, Historical Journal 25 (1982), 131–45;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. D. Thomson, ‘“I Am Not My Father’s Keeper”: Families and the Elderly in Nineteenth-century England’, Law and History Review 2 (1984), 265–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. 40.
    M. Anderson, Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971), pp.45–53;Google Scholar
  48. M. Anderson, ‘Household Structure and the Industrial Revolution; Mid-nineteenth-century Preston in Comparative Perspective’, in P. Laslett and R. Wall (eds), Household and Family in Past Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), pp.224–6;Google Scholar
  49. J. Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution. Early Industrial Capitalism in Three English Towns (London: Methuen, 1974), pp.95–7;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. J. Ehmer, Familienstruktur und Arbeitsorganisation im frühindustriellen Wien (Munich: Oldenbourg, 1980), pp.150–61;Google Scholar
  51. R. Sieder, Sozialgeschichte der Familie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1978), pp.183–6.Google Scholar
  52. 41.
    L. Niethammer and F.-J. Brüggemeier, ‘Wie wohnten die Arbeiter im Kaiserreich?’, Archiv für Sozialgeschichte 16 (1976), 150–4;Google Scholar
  53. F.-J. Brüggemeier, Leben vor Ort. Ruhrbergleute und Ruhrbergbau 1889–1819 (Munich: Beck, 1983), pp.62–8.Google Scholar
  54. 54.
    The work of the Royal Commission, their Report and the final Act are well summarised in U.R.Q. Henriques, Before the Welfare State. Social Administration in Early Industrial Britain (London: Longman, 1979), pp.26–34, 39–52.Google Scholar
  55. 55.
    See ibid., pp.52–9, and M.E. Rose, The Relief of Poverty 1834–1914, 2nd edn (London: Macmillan, 1986), pp.11–14, for convenient sketches of the opposition against the New Poor Law.Google Scholar
  56. 58.
    Incidentally, it is not at all exceptional that she should have been chargeable to a parish she had never been to herself. Upon her marriage, a woman gained the settlement of her husband. Thus, widow Parminter’s deceased husband might have moved from Braintree, where he was settled (be it by birth or later acquisition through apprenticeship, service or otherwise), to Bromsgrove without gaining a new settlement. But it might as well be that his father had moved from Braintree to Bromsgrove in the first place, thereby ‘carrying’ his settlement along with him, and had then bequeathed it to his son. In that case, widow Parminter’s deceased husband would have been settled in Braintree even if he had never been there himself, whereas her own settlement, passed on to her through her father-in-law and her husband, would also have been in Braintree. Cases like these, which could span over several generations and involve a whole range of different places, were dealt with under the notion of ‘derivative settlement’ by eighteenth-century lawyers, and contemporary commentators reported the most ludicrous examples of such settlement ‘chains’. See S. and B. Webb, English Poor Law History, Part I: The Old Poor Law (London: Longman, 1927), pp.333–4.Google Scholar
  57. 61.
    K. Thomas, ‘Age and Authority in Early Modern England’, Proceedings of the British Academy 62 (1976), 205.Google Scholar
  58. 66.
    The distinction between ‘indigence’ and ‘poverty’ in the 1834 Poor Law Report is a telling example. Indigent, and therefore worthy of public assistance, it was said, was any one ‘unable to labour, or unable to obtain, in return for his labour, the means of subsistence’. Poverty, by contrast, was held to be ‘the state of one who, in order to obtain a mere subsistence, is forced to have recourse to labour’: Poor Law Report, p.334. See also P. Colquhoun, A Treatise on Indigence (London: Hatchard, 1806), p.8. The best survey of the ideological background is still J.R. Poynter, Society and Pauperism. English Ideas on Poor Relief, 1795–1834 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969). Other useful works includeGoogle Scholar
  59. P. Mathias, ‘Adam’s Burden: Historical Diagnoses of Poverty’, in P. Mathias, The Transformation of England. Essay on the Economic and Social History of England in the Eighteenth Century (London: Methuen, 1979), pp.131–47;Google Scholar
  60. G. Himmelfarb, The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age (London: Faber & Faber, 1984). For a European perspective, see the brilliant discussion byGoogle Scholar
  61. V. Hunecke, ‘Überlegungen zur Geschichte der Armut im vorindustriellen Europa’, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 9 (1983), 488–512. esp. 383–4 and 509–12.Google Scholar
  62. 69.
    D. Thomson, ‘The Decline of Social Welfare: Falling State Support for the Elderly since Early Victorian Times’, Ageing and Society 4 (1984), 451–82;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. E.H. Hunt, ‘Paupers and Pensioners: Past and Present’, Ageing and Society 9 (1990), 407–30;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. 6.
    P. Thane, ‘Old Age in English History’, in C. Conrad and H.-J. von Kondratowitz (eds), Zur Kulturgeschichte des Alterns/Toward a Cultural History of Aging (Berlin: Deutsches Zentrum für Altersfragen, 1993). pp.24–.Google Scholar
  65. 70.
    O. Hufton, ‘Women without Men: Widows and Spinsters in Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Family History 9 (1984), p.363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Tim Hitchcock, Peter King and Pamela Sharpe 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Thomas Sokoll

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations