Among the collection of sources reproduced here, the Workhouse Inquest Minute Books are unique to the parish archive of St Dionis Backchurch. The first example dates from 1761, and reflects a change in parish policy with the advent of the sub-contracting of the care of parish pensioners to nurses and keepers of private workhouses outside the parish. In part, these volumes can be seen as a measured response to the criticism of the treatment of the poor being published in just these years by Jonas Hanway. But more prosaically, their creation was as likely to have been a simple result of the demands created by the new system of relief - the housing of the poor at a distance necessitated regular visits, which in turn demanded a regular record.
The care of parish pensioners was first entrusted to a Nurse Jackson, but she quickly withdrew her proposals, and her place was taken by Richard Birch, the keeper of a private workhouse in Rose Lane in Spitalfields.1 This arrangement lasted for six years until 1767, when the parish moved its poor to another private workhouse run by Mssrs Hughes and Philip at Hoxton. In the last decades of the eighteenth century and first four decades of the nineteenth, Hoxton was famous for its private lunatic asylums and workhouses, catering for paupers whose settlement lay in the small urban parishes of the City of London.2
Approximately once a month, the churchwardens and overseers of St Dionis Backchurch visited the poor in the workhouse, and made brief notes of the circumstances of individual paupers, recording details of any complaints and disputes. Some inquests simply list the names of each pauper, with a note of the visit at the bottom, frequently in the form of No complaints. Later examples tend to provide a more discursive account, with disputes and their resolution recorded in prose.
Because of the individual details they contain, these inquest books form an unusually rich source for information about the experience of paupers housed in private workhouses.
As in the instance reproduced above each visit is given a separate page or clearly delineated section of a page, with the date and names of the churchwardens and overseers of the poor in the upper right hand corner.
- Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. 2004, ch. 6.
- Murphy, Elaine. The Metropolitan Pauper Farms 1722-1834. London Journal, 27:1 (2002), pp. 1-18.
- Neate, Alan Robert. The St Marylebone Workhouse and Institution, 1730-1965. Rev. edn., 2003.
- Tomkins, Alannah. The Experience of Urban Poverty, 1723-82: Parish, Charity and Credit. Manchester, 2006.
For further reading on this subject see the London Lives Bibliography.
- St Dionis Backchurch, Workhouse Visiting Book, 1783-88, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 11275/1, LL ref: GLDBIW30200, Tagging Level: D
- St Dionis Backchurch, Workhouse Inquest Minute Book, 1761-88, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 4219/1, LL ref: GLDBIW30201, Tagging Level: D
- St Dionis Backchurch, Workhouse Inquest Minute Book, 1762-79, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 4219/2, LL ref: GLDBIW30202, Tagging Level: D
- St Dionis Backchurch, Workhouse Inquest Minute Book, 1779-85, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 4219/3, LL ref: GLDBIW30203, Tagging Level: D
1 On the history and role of parish nurses see Jeremy Boulton, Welfare Systems and the Parish Nurse in Early Modern London, 1650-1725, Family & Community History, 10:2 (2007), pp. 127-51; on contract workhouses see Elaine Murphy, The Metropolitan Pauper Farms 1722-1834, London Journal, 27:1 (2002), pp. 1-18. ⇑
2 Elaine Murphy, The Mad-house Keepers of East London, History Today, September 2001. ⇑