How to Interpret an Eighteenth-Century Manuscript

Christian Frederick Zincke.  A middle-aged man with glasses on his nose, in a soft red hat, is standing in front of a writing desk, with a window in the background William Hoare. Christian Frederick Zincke. 1752. British Museum, Croft-Murray (unpublished 1; Binyon 13). © Trustees of the British Museum.


To hold an eighteenth-century manuscript in your hand, perhaps an examination, letter or deposition, is to be fundamentally connected to the author. From mind to eye to hand, a manuscript is more than text; it is the product of a single human act. And although the technology used to reproduce the text and images of original manuscripts on London Lives inserts a further layer of re-creation between the reader and author, the character of these sources as the product of an individual remains.1

At the same time, the transcriptions and images included on this website are also part of a series of complex systems made of paper, parchment, ink and pen, created to manage local government and allow it to function. They were created as working documents used to enact a series of bureaucratic and legal relationships, and were produced in a wide range of very different physical conditions.

Most readers of this material will refer to the transcription provided on the assumption that it will contain the meat of the document’s meaning. But by using both the transcription and the image; and by maintaining a critical awareness of the information that has been lost through digitisation (patterns of wear, the weight of the paper and heft of a seal), researchers can still gain the maximum amount of information available from the scratches and folds created by long dead clerks and parish officers. This page is designed to help users unfamiliar with the archives of eighteenth-century administration to assess what they contain. For advice on deciphering eighteenth-century handwriting, see Palaeography.

Documents as Collections of Acts

The vast majority of the documents reproduced on this website were created by administrators seeking to make a parish, or a hospital, or the criminal justice system work. They were not designed with the historian in mind, and were instead part of a technology of record keeping that defined a series of acts as significant points in an administrative process. When a prisoner was sent to trial or released, when a pair of shoes was ordered from a shoemaker or issued to a pauper; each act was mirrored on paper. Not all the documents reproduced here were completed as part of a single event. Instead, many were created over years or months, or occasionally over several decades, as is the case with many volumes of Vestry Minutes (MV) – each relevant event being recorded as it occurred. As a result, most documents take the form of layers of texts and marks, one on top of the other reflecting events that were perhaps days or months apart.

A page from the overseers' order book, for May 1788 Westminster Archives Centre, St Clement Danes, Overseers' Order Book, 1788-91, Ms B1248, LL ref: WCCDOO363000009

A single page of an Overseers' Order (OO) book, reproduced here, contains a record of at least thirty-nine different events, spread over at least a month in the spring of 1788. The whole of the text on the page appears to be in the same hand, and to be written with the same ink. But the headings, starting with Wednesday May 21st 1788 suggest that each entry, divided by strong horizontal lines, recorded an individual order placed by the master of the parish workhouse for items he needed – primarily foodstuffs. The first item on the page is "Mutton 6 1/2 lb A Joint", and to the left of this is a name "Luff". After a horizontal line, a new entry then follows, and a further one below, until a final date towards the bottom Saturday May 24th 1788, brings us to the last few items on the page. This page was first laid out between Wednesday and Saturday of the third week of May 1788, and it records all the orders placed by the workhouse master, and to whom the orders were directed.

But, beyond the textual entries, there are at least two further marks associated with each order; a large cross on the right hand side of the order, and a further cross over the name on the left. As much as the orders themselves, these crosses reflect how the book was used. The workhouse master would determine what was needed, and would either direct an errand boy to notify the supplier, or write a note with the details for delivery. In the case of institutions like workhouses most supplies were organised by contract for a set price. The workhouse master would enter the order in this Order Book, as a record of the house’s consumption and financial obligations. The first cross was then made when the goods were received and payment given (probably the cross on the left, over the name); and was normally recorded on the same day the order was placed. A receipt was probably extracted from the supplier, and either spiked or threaded on a cord. This created a precise chronological series of all receipts, and formed an alternative record of the financial dealings of the workhouse. The second cross, almost certainly the one on the right over the amount, would then be made when the information in this book was transferred to the churchwardens' or overseers' Accounts Book (AC), with the series of receipts being used to cross check for accuracy. As each receipt was compared to each order, and as each line in the new account was completed, the cross was entered to reflect the completion of this particular financial transaction. This last cross could have been added weeks or even months after the original order had been placed.2

Archives as Systems

A page from the minutes of assistants for 1787 Westminster Archives Centre, St Clement Danes, Minutes of Assistants, 1779-90, Ms B1147, LL ref: WCCDMO361030156.

Few of the documents reproduced here exist as a single, free-standing object. Most were created as part of a working archive; and just as the information in a source such as an Order Book was created over time as a series of new additions, entries made across different sources within the same archive similarly reflect a bureaucratic system implemented across time. The order placed with Luff, for "Mutton 6 1/2 lb A Joint" on May 21st 1788, for instance, was priced according to a contract which had been entered into eight months previously, and recorded in the Churchwardens' and Overseers' Minute Book (MO), following a meeting at which butchers and other suppliers were asked to submit tenders for supplying the workhouse with meat and dairy products, etc. The relevant minute records that:

The following July, two months after the order placed on 21 May, his contract was extended.

The same order for mutton would also have been recorded in the workhouse master’s accounts, and from there entered into the overseers’ accounts for May 1788. Neither of these record series have survived, but the overseers’ accounts were in turn approved by the vestry, which at its meeting on June 5th 1788, minuted that they had Read and Auditted the Overseers Accounts for the Month of May last. Amountg: to £182:13:6.

A page of vestry minutes for 5 June 1788 St Clement Danes, Vestry Minutes 1787-1795, Westminster Archives Centre, Ms B1073, LL ref: WCCDMV36205


None of the archives reproduced on this site are complete. Two to three hundred years of happenstance and archival policy ensure that many elements of the complete pen and paper systems originally created to manage the institutions of eighteenth-century London have not survived. When using what has survived it is important to consider that it forms just a part of a larger structure.

To a great extent the survival of eighteenth-century material depended on being associated with an institution. Parishes, courts and guilds have a life span that goes beyond the merely human, and as a result their records are more likely to find a safe and prominent place in our archives than private letters and family papers. But institutions maintain archives for their own purposes. As a result, even where an archive has survived, some types of record are more likely to be preserved than others. A Settlement Examination (EP) - that may need to be consulted ten or twenty years after it was originally created - is more likely to have been added to the parish chest than the receipts and notes that formed such an important, but ephemeral part of the system of the day-to-day financial management. In a similar way, minute books, which could take decades to complete and which contain policy decisions that could influence subsequent behaviour, survive in large numbers and relatively complete series. In contrast, notes and correspondence are much less common. These types of documents were delivered into the hands of people with little investment in preserving the products of other people's administrative systems.3

Another significant aspect of this selective survival can be found in the evolution of the British system of record management. The Public Record Office (now the National Archives) was first established by act of parliament in 1838, charged with collecting specifically central government and court records. Following the pioneering efforts of archivists such as G. H. Fowler and F.G. Emmison local government records were also preserved in a comprehensive series of county records offices.4 Although these archives provide a home for many private and business collections, their legal remit ensures that their focus is on local and central government, and that government records form the overwhelming weight of preserved documents. Because London Lives is itself largely dependent on the existence of a substantial body of microfilmed records from these same archives, this bias towards government records is necessarily reflected on this site.

As a result of the complex ways in which events and relationships were recorded and preserved it is important to read each page not simply as a text – written to provide information – but as a record of a series of events spread over time and place, and evidenced not just in words transcribed from the page, but as marks given meaning by their position within a larger system, much of which no longer exists.

The Social Meaning of Literacy

If we need to consider the sources reproduced on this website as evidence of a complex system for recording events, we also need to be aware of who was empowered to create these records, and who was able to read them. Whether you could read printed text or manuscript, whether you could write your name or write a sentence, or draft a formal document (in English or Latin), can all be used as measures of relative literacy, but each form of literacy gave to the individual a different relationship to the archives of local government.

Using the ability to write one's own name as a measure of basic literacy, historians have charted a complex landscape of different types and levels of literacy. Nationally by the mid-eighteenth century approximately sixty per cent of men and forty per cent of women could sign their names. In London these figures were substantially higher. Using depositions given before the church courts in London and Middlesex, Peter Earle estimates that by the turn of the eighteenth century over 90 per cent of men and almost 60 per cent of women in the metropolis were able to sign.5 These figures, however, substantially underestimate levels of basic literacy.

Eighteenth-century education, for the poor in particular, strongly emphasised reading (and reading the Bible). Many elite and religiously inspired commentators felt that to be a good Protestant you needed to be able to read the word of God. And through a wide range of both formal schools (including charity and grammar schools), and more importantly through informal Dame Schools and tutoring arrangements, the vast majority of Londoners had some access to education. The first thing they were taught was how to read. There was, however, a more ambiguous attitude to writing. Some commentators believed writing was a skill the possession of which would only encourage the poor to aspire above their allotted station in life. And many poor parents eagerly agreed, arguing that an education that empowered their children to aspire in just this way formed the only legacy they could provide.6

Despite the aspirations of poor parents, the ability to read was almost certainly much more common than the ability to write, and in London was almost universal. Within this category of literacy, however, reading manuscript sources was different from printed text. Most children were taught to read using the black letter script of the Bible, and a similar script was used to reproduce ballads directed at a popular audience well into the eighteenth century. To an eighteenth-century eye a black gothic script of the sort reproduced above could be easier to read than a plain printed text; and would certainly be more familiar than handwriting.7

It is likely that many of the people who opted to mark their documents in preference to signing, as they often did on Pauper Examinations (EP), could read printed text fluently, while perhaps struggling with hand-written material.

Writing literacy was equally disparate. Professional clerks and scribes, trained through a laborious apprenticeship, continued to find a ready market for their services throughout the eighteenth century. As a result, eighteenth-century London retained many of the characteristics of a scribal society in which writing was a service undertaken by an identifiable professional group. Even Pauper Letters (PR) were occasionally written by a professional clerk and embellished with all the marks of a legal document. But this professional cadre of writers was overtaken during the course of the century by a wider pool of individuals for whom record keeping and the writing that it demanded became part and parcel of both their working lives, and their roles as unpaid government administrators.8

Two pages of a pre-printed register of apprentices, laid out in accordance with Jonas Hanway's 1767 act of parliament St Botolph Aldgate, Register of Apprentices, 1777-1805, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms 2658, LL ref: GLBARA107010009&10.

From the 1670s an italic script of handwriting was replaced by a merchant-like running hand, which in turn evolved into a series of more specialised hands for different purposes, each requiring its own technique both in the writing and in the preparation of a quill. From 1733, Latin was superseded by English as the language of the law, even in the minority of legal documents that had retained a formulaic Latin component until that date. As a result, many of the ways in which scribal authority helped to structure early modern society lost their resonance in an increasingly literate metropolis.

The technology of writing was also changing. Specialised writing desks, pre-mixed and commercial inks, and an ever growing paraphernalia of writing equipment, made writing easier and the production of complex documents attainable by even the most uncertain draughtsman.9 The graphite pencil, encased in wood, was also growing in popularity during these same years. The first mass-produced pencils hit the market in the late seventeenth century.10 The eighteenth century also saw the widespread publication of self-help manuals designed to teach the untutored how to write a letter, keep an account book, or set out a register.11 By the end of the century you could spend hundreds of pounds on the paraphernalia of writing, while still being able to achieve much the same result with a quill, paper and home-made ink.

A pre-printed form ordering the removal of a vagrant Middlesex Sessions Papers, Sept. 1751-Dec. 1752, Printed Vagrancy Order, 31 August 1752, London Metropolitan Archives, MJ/SP/1690-MJ/SP/1690-MJ/SP/1799 , LL ref: LMSLPS150630212.

From at least the 1760s, parliamentary acts specified the form of record keeping required for certain activities. Jonas Hanway's acts of 1762 and 1767, for instance, provided precise schedules laying out how London parishes were to register their pauper children. By the time the acts came into force, parishes could buy pre-printed volumes for the purpose, with columns and headings (printed to appear like a manuscript) on each page.

Printed forms became particularly important to local government and were used with growing regularity as the eighteenth century progressed. These new forms ensured that the legal niceties were correctly adhered to even when the parish officer doing the work had only the sketchiest knowledge of the law.


Most of the documents reproduced in London Lives were written in an italic or "merchant-like" running or round hand and are reasonably legible to a modern eye. A few minutes comparing the transcripts provided with the original images should allow you to decipher the original without difficulty. Please be aware, however, that the transcripts contain some errors and when quoting from this site, particularly in an academic context, you are advised to check the transcription against the image of the original, and to satisfy yourself as to the transcripts' accuracy. Since tables are difficult to reproduce in transcribed form, you will almost always find it easier to read the original image.

If you would like more detailed information and tutorials on early modern handwriting please see:

Back to Top | Introductory Reading

Introductory Reading

  • Barry, Jonathan. Communicating With Authority: The Uses of Script, Print and Speech in Bristol, 1670-1714. In Crick, Julia C. and Walsham, Alexandra, eds, The Uses of Script and Print, 1300-1700. Cambridge, 2004.
  • Beal, Peter. In Praise of Scribes: Manuscripts and their Makers in Seventeenth-Century England. Oxford, 1998.
  • Cressy, David. Literacy in Context: Meaning and Measurement in Early Modern England. In Cressy, David, ed., Society and Culture in Early Modern England. (Collected studies series, 768). Aldershot and Burlington (VT), 2003.
  • Ong, Walter J. Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought. In Baumann, Gerd, ed., The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Oxford, 1986.
  • Thomas, Keith. The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England. In Baumann, Gerd, ed., The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. Oxford, 1986.
  • Whyman, Susan. The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660-1800. Oxford, 2009.

Online Resources

For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography.


1 For a discussion of the impact of digitisation on how scholars experience the archive, see Tim Hitchcock, Digital Searching and the Reformulation of Historical Knowledge, in Mark Greengrass and Lorna Hughes, eds, The Virtual Representation of the Past (Aldershot, 2008), pp. 81-90.

2 For a description of the evolution of accounting techniques, see J. R. Edwards, A History of Financial Accounting (1989). For a nuanced discussion of the evolution of numeracy in this period see, Keith Thomas, Numeracy in Early Modern England, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 37 (1987), pp. 103-32.

3 For a good general guide to parish record keeping and archives see William E. Tate, The Parish Chest: A Study of the Records of Parochial Administration in England (Cambridge 1946, 3rd edn, 1969).

4 There remains no comprehensive historical study of the county archives movement and its impact. For a history of the National Archives see John D. Cantwell, The Public Record Office, 1838-1958 (1991).

5 Peter Earle, A City Full of People: Men and Women of London, 1650-1750 (1994), pp. 36-7.

6 For an excellent recent study of the role of writing in the lives of eighteenth-century people, see Susan Whyman, The Pen and the People: English Letter Writers, 1660-1800 (Oxford, 2009).

7 For a discussion of this phenomenon, see Keith Thomas, The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England, in Gerd Baumann, ed., The Written Word: Literacy in Transition (Oxford, 1986), pp. 97-131.

8 Thomas Sokoll, ed., Essex Pauper Letters, 1731-1837 (Oxford, 2001).

9 Michael Finlay, Western Writing Implements in the Age of the Quill Pen (Carlisle, 1990).

10 Henry Petroski, The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance (New York, 1990).

11 See for example, John Clark, Writing Improv'd or Penmanship Made Easy (1714).