"...of applying to Mr Gosling, the relieving officer, of the Basford union. who gave me an order for 8lb of bread, for presant relief, and also an order for the union house”
By Dr Paul Carter
Letter from George Ellis, 1858 (see footnotes for details) reproduced by kind permission of The National Archives.
Towards the end of June 1858 George Ellis, of Arnold in Nottinghamshire (part of the Basford Poor Law Union), wrote to the Poor Law Board. His letter is a wonderful piece of writing and deserves setting out in full...
'May it please your Lordships I your humble petitioner, am a Framework knitter, residing at Arnold, and also belonging the same place, and altho turned 70 years of age, I have up to the presents time been enabled to support myself, and my wife, but now having no employment, I have been driven to the painfull expedients of applying to Mr Gosling, the relieving officer, of the Basford union. who gave me an order for 8lb of bread, for presant relief, and also an order for the union house, Now I humbly hope your Lordships will kindly consider my case and give such advice as you think fit, to me it seems hard at my time of life - 70 and my wife 69 years of age; to have to give up our home, on the first application for relief. I had understood my age would exempt me from the house. I conclude by saying I hope my case will meet with your Lordships consideration. I remain your humble petitioner, George Ellis'
We will return to George Ellis later.
One of the things that attracted me to history (many years ago) was trying to understand how ordinary people lived their lives and that interest has stayed with me. What I find fascinating about researching the nineteenth century poor, whether workhouse inmates, those on outdoor relief or those members of the “labouring poor” who managed just to get by, is drilling down to the intimate detail of their lived lives and what they thought about them. The obvious difficulty here is that, unlike their wealthier counterparts higher up the social scale, the poor tended not to create much in the way of archival collections of letters, papers, diaries etc. Nevertheless, pauper letters were written – and they survive (underused and hard to track down) in their thousands.
Pauper letters, as a sub-set of the archival materials used by historians, are relatively new to the historical research landscape. In the main they have been used by historians in analysing the pre-1834 Old Poor Law. However, an AHRC funded project led by Professor Steve King at the University of Leicester, called In Their Own Write (ITOW) has been leading a team (including a dedicated group of volunteer researchers) unearthing thousands of letters from paupers and their advocates, as well as pauper statements produced as part of official poor law investigations from the Victorian New Poor Law period. The result of this work will lead to a timely re-balancing of the poor law archives which in the main were produced by the overseers, masters, guardians, senior administrative staff within the central poor law bureaucracy and the legislature. The pauper voice has been missing and records such as pauper letters and their statements will put it centre stage.
Paupers who sent their letters to the central authority in London had their correspondence date stamped, registered and bound in with all of the other letters and reports emanating from that union, into large “union” volumes. This makes individual letters and statements difficult to find as they are not searchable using The National Archives online catalogue. However, their importance cannot be overestimated as these are the best archival collection we have to provide us with the poor’s view of the welfare on offer to them across the nineteenth century. The rest of this blog is really an illustrative account which looks at what issues the poor brought to the attention of the central authority.
One of the key refrains we find in the pauper archive is the very determined voice concerning the reticence of the poor to enter the workhouse. Hundreds of pauper letters from ITOW touch on the poor’s resolve to refuse “the House”. On 1 November 1840 Abraham Tatton, an unemployed plate maker and potter, died and the local Wolstanton and Burslem Union undertook an investigation into the circumstances of his death. Included in the report sent to the central authority was a statement by Elizabeth Tatton his widow. She claimed that Abraham had been ill about for about three weeks and he had “two or three times applied to the Relieving Officer… who always offered him an order into the Workhouse, but he refused to accept it, as he would not be parted from his wife and children, and would rather die for want”.
The poor often sought dignity in their dealings with the poor law authorties. One of the sub-categories of dignity in the corpus of letters as a whole are those letters which refer to dignity in old age. In the middle of October 1870 David Aaron wrote from Llanrhystud in Cardiganshire, to the Poor Law Board complaining that he was 82 years old and that after a life time of labour he was “without any means of support except from the parish who allow me only one shilling a week and refuse to give any more alliging that my daughter can keep me”. He explained that his daughter, a widow, was as poor as he was and unable to help. He had been regularly employed in breaking stones to repair the local roads and “as my strength fails me from old age I have nothing but the parish for support and one shilling a week will not mentain me…”. He pitifully signs off by begging the Boards “protection or I must starve”. It is clear in Aaron’s letter that he believed that his life of work should have qualified him for an acceptable level of relief in his old age.
Letter from David Aaron, 1870 (see footnotes for details) reproduced by kind permission of The National Archives.
Relief was intimately tied to illness and sickness as this almost invariably restricted the individuals earning power. There are thousands of letters and statements across the corpus which refer to sickness, disease and disabilities. For example, in late April 1898 William McReady, an inmate of the Liverpool Workhouse, wrote to the Local Government Board. He had recently been transferred from the hospital to “the Building”; that is to say the main workhouse at Brownlow Hill. He described himself as a married man with four children and that he suffered from “Bronchits and Indegestion and Skin Dease”. He complained that as he was now in the main workhouse he was being denied medical care and that as “… a Drowrning man will grab at a straw I am grabbin[g] for my life If possible get someone to call in…I am Begging for mercy”.
The full project corpus is still being worked on but runs to thousands of letters and statements, the transcripts of which will be made available for free on The National Archives website next year. What then of George Ellis who we met at the beginning of this blog? George wrote two more letters; the first in March 1862 and a second in May of the same year. In March he explained that he was 74 and a framework knitter by trade although the “… Trade is in such a state of depression that there is scarcely anything for anybody to do”. He had been receiving temporary relief from during his wife’s recent illness “… but she being now dead the relieving officer has stoped it. &. I being now reduced to very necessitius circumstances, I applied to him for Relief & he actually refused me either relief or an order for the House; in cosequence, I told him I should appeal to the higher Power. In May he wrote again. He explained that he had attended the board of guardians a month ago and because of his earlier complaint they ordered me 8lbs of bread each week for one month. This allowance had then ceased and he was “...compelled to aply (having no work) on Friday last, & the Relieving officer has given me an order for the House, which I think unreasonable at my time of life”. The letter was annotated that the Poor Law Board would not intervene on his behalf and that “… it rests with the G[uardian]s to decide in what way relief shall be given - & that as the Gs have offered him relief in the WH the B[oar]d cannot further interfere. Accepting at last that the Poor Law Board were not going to intercede for him, Ellis ends his correspondence.
Letter from William McReady (see footnotes for details) reproduced by kind permission of The National Archives.
Dr Paul Carter
Principal Records Specialist (Collaborative Projects): The National Archives
Co-Investigator “In Their Own Write”
 MH 12/9246/98, 26445/1858, George Ellis, Arnold, Nottinghamshire, to the Poor Law Board, 25 June 1858.
 I am art of this team and from next year (2021) the full transcripts of thousands of these letters and statements will be made available on The National Archives website. For further information on the project see https://intheirownwriteblog.com/about/
 The National Archives (TNA); MH 12: Local Government Board and predecessors: Correspondence with Poor Law Unions and Other Local Authorities, 1834-1900. There are 16741 volume(s) covering England and Wales.
 TNA: MH 12/11196/152, 12985/B/1840, statement included in Joseph Lowndes, Clerk to the Guardians of the Wolstanton and Burslem Poor Law Union, to the Poor Law Commission, 19 November 1840.
 TNA: MH12/15801, 44839/1870, David Aaron, Llanrhystud, to the Poor Law Board, 19 October 1870.
 TNA: MH 12/6015, 55314/1898, William McReady, Liverpool Workhouse, to the Local Government Board, 29 April 1898.
 MH 12/9248/53, 9624/1862, George Ellis, Arnold, to the Poor Law Board, 24 March 1862.