Williams on King, 'Writing the Lives of the English Poor, 1750s-1830s'

Steven King
Samantha Williams

Steven King. Writing the Lives of the English Poor, 1750s-1830s. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2019. 488 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-5648-5; $37.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-5649-2

Reviewed by Samantha Williams (University of Cambridge) Published on H-Albion (June, 2022) Commissioned by Jeffrey R. Wigelsworth (Red Deer Polytechnic)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53853

This is the first comprehensive book-length study of pauper letters and draws upon an extremely impressive body of letters as well as responses from parish officials and other parish records including vestry minutes, and overseers’ accounts, receipts, and vouchers, which form the “epistolary scaffolding” (p. 20) around the corpus of letters. Pauper letters were written by those in need, who did not live in their parish of settlement and whom King classes as the “noisy poor” (p. 43), to their parish requesting relief; this was the out-parish system, which grew rapidly from the mid-eighteenth century. It is particularly difficult to recover the words of the poor, given how little they have left behind, but pauper letters offer an unparalleled insight into their lived experience. This book draws upon—and considerably extends—King’s previous body of work on pauper letters. Many places are represented in this study, with 559 communities receiving the pauper letters from 1,500 sending communities, with a staggering 25,652 items of correspondence, with some letter writers sending a single or small number of letters, while others were sustained writers sending 30-40 letters.

King argues that officials, claimants, and their advocates formed a tripartite epistolary world and that there was a “shared meaning of appeal and response” (p. 113) and a “shared linguistic register” (p. 31) due to, he claims, the middling sort and the poor experiencing shared schooling, writing traditions, and oral cultures. Such a study of the entire process of poor relief uncovers “a different sort of Old Poor Law from what we see in much of the historiographical literature, one with agency and negotiation at its core and one in which the power and rules of the state were essentially malleable at the local level.” The study adds, then, to the existing literature on the agency of the poor as well as the more recent trend to emphasize that this agency was strategic and, to that end, contributed to a reshaping of the Old Poor Law itself.

This is a large book, divided into four parts. Part 1, “Starting Points,” provides essential context on the Old Poor Law and the development of the out-parish system of welfare. Most of the letters date from the later eighteenth century due to growing internal migration, rapid urbanization, industrial and agrarian change, the rise of literate culture, and the advent of the penny post. Indeed, pauper letters are a product of migration and laws of settlement. King argues that letter writing gave “agency to the poor at a time when the Old Poor Law is usually thought to have been in crisis mode” (p. 57), which historians date from the mid-1790s. This section of the book considers how to approach pauper letters as historical documents; pauper letters were, paradoxically, both authentic and fictive. King proposes seven letter types: instigatory, renewing, extending, testamentary, desperate note, ending, and interspersing. In part 2, “Contexts and Yardsticks”, the largest section, King explores how the poor navigated the process of nonresident relief, including the material culture of letter writing, the reception of their letters by parish officials, and, in turn, how that shaped letter writing. In one of the most interesting chapters, “Finding Words,” King explores how the poor, literally, found the words with which to express their circumstances within their letters: while they shared the linguistic foundations with parish officials, they also appropriated words and they borrowed them.

Part 3 turns to examine how the poor “rhetoricised” the stories contained in their letters. There was a wide “rhetorical spectrum” and in this chapter King returns to the letter types to offer a set of proposed classification schemes within which to analyze the pauper letters, but without any attempt at quantification of such a large corpus. Although pauper letters frequently expressed many and overlapping rhetorical devices, it is difficult from this analysis to get a sense of their relative weighting. There is also no estimate of the success rate of pauper letter writing in securing poor relief over and above that “most” had a positive outcome (p. 114). This is somewhat surprising given King’s previous quantitative work. He argues that such an exercise misses the point that the poor measured success in a variety of ways. Nevertheless, an emphasis upon requests over successful relief claims risks overemphasizing the agency of the poor. As shown in the work of other historians who have linked letter writers to overseers’ accounts, many were unsuccessful in securing poor relief. Within the rhetorical spectrum analyzed for this section of the book, King finds that there were key features of an “anchoring rhetoric”—“a set of arguments, proofs, and claims” (p. 197)—expressed in terms of struggle, custom, and precedent; rights and duties; law and practice; humanitarianism; and friendship, which were repeated across time and the communities in the corpus.

Thereafter chapters are devoted to the rhetorics of character, dignity, and life cycle and gender. In the latter, old age was articulated in terms of accumulating infirmity, persistent sickness, the notion of decline, and prior contribution to communities. Orphans, too, were constructed as deserving objects of relief, although children did not “speak” for themselves in the letters but were referred to by others. Women wrote to their settlement parish when they were deserted or widowed or requested relief on behalf of their families in times of illness or unemployment. When motherhood was compromised and women could not provide for their children, they employed a much more “emotional, emotive, and eloquent rhetoric” (p. 299), while compromised fathers stressed that prolonged sickness had taken away their ability to provide for their wives and children, with some fathers infusing their letters with a sense of pathos.

In the final and shortest part of the book, King turns to “Self and Meaning.” Given the very real difficulties historians face in reconstructing the experience of poverty, the corpus of letters provide, argues King, a unique opportunity to contemplate “identity and the pauper self.” This section explores how the poor saw themselves and how others saw them, and the interrelationship between the epistolary world of the parish and the poor law. King places the letters within the wider historiographical context of changes in the history of the self toward the end of the eighteenth century and argues that poor writers appear to have gained “a new interiority” and their letters display “individual personality” (pp. 314-315). The study reflects upon the extent to which identities might have been imposed, which was particularly important when claimants had to present themselves as deserving. Letter writers also emphasized that they belonged to both their host parish and their settlement parish, despite their distance from the latter. The chapter also contributes to the history of emotions by considering the extent to which the letters allow us to explore interiorized feelings including despair, depression, hopelessness, and shame. Unlike autobiographers, instead of emphasizing that the individual was extraordinary, poor writers presented themselves as ordinary, but prolonged suffering rendered the pauper self liminal.

King concludes that the letters suggest that the emergence of mass literacy should be pushed back to the 1820s; that poor relief as a negotiated process needs reemphasizing; that the agency of the poor was crucial; that historians should not focus only upon welfare outcomes; and that the national feeling of a “crisis” of the Old Poor Law was divorced from the politics of the parish. Throughout the book King weaves a modest number of exemplary pauper case histories from the letters to illuminate his themes and the complexity of the task. This book will certainly give historians of welfare and agency, letter writing and literacy, and the pauper self plenty to think about. King has undertaken a mammoth task and has demonstrated the many ways in which pauper letters need to be analyzed. On a different note, the publisher might want to consider the robustness of such a large paperback since my copy started to disintegrate.

Citation: Samantha Williams. Review of King, Steven, Writing the Lives of the English Poor, 1750s-1830s. H-Albion, H-Net Reviews. June, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53853

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