Researching Poverty

A line of seven lame and poor men, including one on crutches and another holding up a banner.  Drawn in red chalk Giuseppe Maria Mitelli, The Numerous Company of the Damned, c.1700. British Museum 1899,0729.1. ┬ęTrustees of the British Museum.


In conjunction with the detection and punishment of crime, the relief of poverty formed the most important function of local government in eighteenth-century London, and the workings of this system is reflected in a wide range of the sources reproduced in London Lives, emanating from almost all the institutions and datasets covered. Each source and archive, however, had a different function, and in order to research poverty, or indeed, individual paupers, it is necessary to navigate the different levels of both policy formation and implementation, from the Middlesex sessions and Lord Mayor down through petty sessions and the parishes, and on to independent organisations such as St Thomas's Hospital and the Carpenters' Company. It is also important to remember that many of the poor, particularly those without a settlement in London, did not benefit from institutional relief. It is therefore necessary to read these sources against the grain, to find out as much as possible about the wider experience of poverty.

The County and the City

At county and City level the formation of policy, and the implementation of that policy, was the responsibility of either the Middlesex sessions or, in the City of London, the Lord Mayor, Court of Aldermen and Common Council. Of the records reflecting policy at this level, the General Orders of Court (GO) produced by the Middlesex sessions are included on this website, and provide a way of charting changes in policy, in particular the spasmodic pattern characteristic of the prosecution of vagrancy. The equivalent records for the City, including those of the Lord Mayor, Court of Alderman and Common Council, have not been digitised, and are held at the London Metropolitan Archives.

As well as directly administering the removal of vagrants, the Middlesex sessions also acted as a court of appeal for parishes seeking to overturn settlement decisions and rate assessments. As a result, the Sessions Papers (PS) contain large numbers of settlement examinations, certificates, removal orders and petitions.

Individual Justices, acting in petty sessions, were also empowered to hear appeals from the poor, and from rate payers. They also confirmed the audit of parochial poor relief accounts once a year. Although petty sessions records do not survive in large numbers, a substantial series is interleaved in the Vestry Minutes (MV) of St Clement Danes between approximately 1740 and 1760.

The Parish

The parish formed the main provider of poor relief in the eighteenth century, and the majority of parish records are given over to the administration of this system. Vestry Minutes (MV) record policy changes, but can also include details of petitions from the poor, and details of the relief provided. The Account Books (AC) of both churchwardens and overseers of the poor contain the most detailed records of the actual relief provided to individuals, and survive in large numbers for all the parishes whose records are included on this site. Beyond general accounts organised in a ledger format, there are also numerous petty ledgers recording specific types of expenditure, and a wide variety of registers listing inmates in the local workhouse (RW), children at nurse (RC), apprentices (RA), and recipients of clothing (BN).

The bastardy examination of Jane Hughes, dated 11 April 1783 Westminster Archives Centre, St Clement Danes, Examination Book, 31st March 1783 - 3rd August 1786, B1186, LL ref: WCCDEP358100060.

The other major parochial source of information about the poor takes the form of Settlement Examinations (EP), and can be found in long series for St Clement Danes and St Botolph Adgate, and in a database form for St Martin in the Fields. Although these examinations tend to be formulaic, they contain substantial biographical detail about the lives of tens of thousands of individuals.

Hospitals and Guilds

Although not directly dedicated to the relief of poverty, hospitals such as St Thomas's Hospital provided medical care for numerous paupers, referred either from their parish or, as a vagrant, from a house of correction. A pattern of referring substantial numbers of vagrants to hospital is particularly apparent from the 1780s onwards. The primary function of guilds revolved around the regulation of a specific trade and admission of new masters and apprentices, but they also administered a large number of charities. The Carpenters' Company, whose records are included on this website, distributed a wide range of bequests in support of education and the elderly, and also gave out more irregular forms of emergency relief in periods of high prices and economic depression. The recipients of this relief are generally listed in the Company's Committee Minute Books (MC).

Questioning the Archive

Although there is a substantial body of published history relating to the Poor Law, poor relief and poverty in London, there remain substantial gaps in our understanding of the both the experience of poverty, and the ways in which poverty and its relief functioned as a system of social interaction. The following list of questions identify some possible areas of useful research:

  • Who were the poor (age, gender, occupation, dis/ability, migrant, settled)?
  • How did parish relief interact with economies of makeshift?
  • What triggered changes in parish policy?
  • Who controlled parish policy, and in whose interest did it work?
  • How did the system of vagrancy prosecutions relate to the system of poor relief?
  • How did the changing body of resources available through hospitals and charities relate to parish relief and vagrancy?
  • How did the relief of poverty work as a fragment of the wider economy?
  • How did the poor experience this system?
  • How much can we learn about poverty which was not relieved by charity and parish relief?

Back to Top | Introductory Reading

Exemplary Lives

Lives using the keyword Pauper:

Lives using the phrase Pauper Child:

Introductory Reading

  • Andrew, Donna T. Philanthropy and Police: London Charity in the Eighteenth Century. Princeton, 1989.
  • Green, David. Pauper Capital: London and the Poor Law, 1790-1860. Aldershot, 2010.
  • Hindle, Steve. On the Parish?: The Micro-Politics of Poor Relief in Rural England, c.1550-1750. Oxford, 2004.
  • Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. 2004.
  • Innes, Joanna. Managing the Metropolis: London's Social Problems and their Control, c.1660-1830. In Clark, Peter and Gillespie, Raymond, eds, Two Capitals: London and Dublin 1500-1840 (Proceedings of the British Academy, 107). Oxford, 2001, pp.53-79.
  • King, Steven. Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700-1850. Manchester, 2000.
  • Lees, Lynn Hollen. The Solidarities of Strangers: The English Poor Laws and the People, 1700-1948. Cambridge, 1998.
  • Slack, Paul. From Reformation to Improvement: Public Welfare in Early Modern England. Oxford, 1999.

Online Resources

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