Letters to Parish Officials Seeking Poor Relief (PR)

A letter in an uncertain hand, closely written in two directions. A Letter Seeking Pauper Relief; St Dionis Backchurch, Letters from Paupers, 1758-9, Ms 19233, LL ref: GLDBPR308000019


The creation of a workable system of settlement certificates from the 1690s ensured that paupers could hope to receive support or a pension despite living at a distance from their settlement parish. Letters from paupers to their home parish are occasionally included in parish archives as a separate category of document, though more often they are interspersed with receipts and miscellaneous parish papers. The earliest examples of these types of letters date from the 1740s and 1750s, and they only become commonplace in the early nineteenth century (beyond the scope of this website). Only a small number survive from this period.

Layout and Content

Pauper letters normally seek small sums from the parish and detail the circumstances in which the pauper is living and the precise amounts or items they need. They also commonly threaten the parish with greater expense in future, if immediate relief is denied. These letters are frequently written by semi-literate people and seldom conform to standard English usage. The spelling is often phonetic and the handwriting is commonly erratic. As with many eighteenth-century letters, a single sheet of paper is used as both letter and envelope (being folded back onto itself, with the address appearing on the outside). In the example above the different folds used to create the envelope have also been used to define "sides", so the text is actually made up of two different letters, one written at a ninety degree angle to the other.

Introductory Reading

  • King, Steven. Pauper Letters as a Source. Family & Community History, 10:2 (2007), pp. 167-70.
  • Levene, Alysa et al., eds. Narratives of the Poor in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Vol. 1: Voices of the Poor: Poor Law Depositions and Letters. 2006.
  • Sharpe, Pamela. "The bowels of compation": A Labouring Family and the Law, c.1790-1834. In Hitchcock, Tim; King, Peter and Sharpe, Pamela, eds, Chronicling Poverty: The Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640-1840. Basingstoke and London, 1997.
  • Sokoll, Thomas, ed. Essex Pauper Letters, 1731-1837. Records of Social and Economic History, ns, 30. Oxford, 2001.
  • Sokoll, Thomas. Writing for Relief: Rhetoric in English Pauper Letters, 1800-1834. In Gestrich, Andreas; King, Steven and Lutz, Raphael, eds, Being Poor in Modern Europe: Historical Perspectives 1800-1940. Oxford, 2006.

Online Resources

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

Documents Included on this Website

  • St Dionis Backchurch, Letters from Paupers, 1758-59, London Metropolitan Archives, Ms. 19233/1, LL ref: GLDBPR30800, Tagging Level: D

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