Petitions of the People?

Our next post in ‘The Voices of the People’ symposium (full programme here) is by Jonathan Healey, University Lecturer in English Local and Social History at the Oxford University Department of Continuing Education. Focusing on petitions for poor relief, Jonathan further expands our discussion of early modern petitions and their value to practitioners of history ‘from below’, whilst at the same time raising crucial questions about their authorship and the extent to which they can really be considered the ‘authentic’ voices of the people.

Jonathan Healey

In 1699, Richard Tyldesley, a labourer from Little Hulton, Lancashire, presented at petition at Wigan Sessions.

It was on behalf of his neighbour Thomas Gerrard, and it described the latter man’s poverty in vivid terms.

‘Thomas Gerrard’, he wrote, ‘is now and hath lain sick in bed this five weekes, his wife is now in child bed, was allmost recovered, but now relapsed. The husband and new borne child lye in one poor bed the 3 children scarce recovered of sicknes. There is neither meat nor fire in the house.’

All they had received in poor relief was six shillings, ‘which will not pay and maintaine a person to looke after them’, and had not their neighbours offered their charity, ‘they had been all starved & miserably perished in the house before this’.

But charity had its limits, especially – though this was unsaid – at a time of high prices such as 1699, so ‘now their charity begins to slacken so that tis impossible they should any one of ‘em subsist 3 dayes longer but will miserably perish for want of releefe’.

Tyldesely’s petition, which was successful, is one of thousands of similar ones that survive in the Lancashire Archives. They begin in 1626, and cover the period of up to around 1710. It’s part of an elaborate process: the one by which poor relief – in what was the first national system of tax-funded poor relief in the world – was allocated. In the discussions about who was deserving or help – as Steve Hindle has eloquently argued – petitions like these show that the poor themselves were part of the conversation. They were active. They appealed. They negotiated. The Lancashire petitions give us a window onto these processes, and these negotiations.

They are, in many ways, quite simple documents. They asked for relief, gave some reason for why it was needed, and – sometimes – gave snippets of other information. Something about how the petitioner had tried to ‘make shift’, for example, or something about their bad treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Ostensibly, they are an ‘authentic’ voice of the poor. And yet, peel back the layers, and some considerable complications emerge.

We know, for example, that most of the poor were illiterate. Few could read, even fewer could wield a pen. So who actually wrote the petitions? Was the petitioner supposed to present in person? Are petitions transcripts of verbal appeals, or was their production a longer-lasting, more complex procedure?

Perhaps the most fundamental question is whose voice they capture. Do we hear the pauper speaking? What input did the scribe have? To what extent were the words conditioned by expected conventions? Are they deploying standard narratives – ‘fictions in the archives’, to paraphrase Natalie Zemon Davis?

Such questions are critical. They are critical not just for historians trying to understand poverty, poor relief, and the political agency of the poor. They are also critical for historians ‘from below’, trying to understand what forms of power were available to those of ‘subaltern’ status.

We can find a bit out about the petitions by looking at the formal records of the courts they were aimed at. In Lancashire, there were a number of orders each year that related to the cases of individual paupers. These must have originated in petitions, though they are often hard to tally with specific documents. We can get a bit from parish and township accounts, which sometimes show payments for attending law courts, usually to fight their own corner, hoping to deny petitioners relief.

And occasionally we get bits from individual justices. The Norfolk JP Robert Doughty, for example, received over thirty pauper petitions between 1662 and 1665.

But the best information comes from the petitions themselves. Looking closely at the many thousands of surviving documents, we can get a sense of the process by which the poor – at least in Lancashire – negotiated their position.

In many cases, for example, petitioners mentioned being refused relief in their township, forcing the appeal. Sometimes townships refused relief specifically until the petitioner got an order. Grace Davison’s uncle of Melling, for example, told Lancaster JPs in 1638 that the parishioners were unwilling to relieve six-year-old Grace, ‘unlesse your worshipps give Order and Warrant soe to doe’.

Others had been denied outright. John Lomax of Bolton, for example, recounted in 1679 how ‘the Overseers have refused to releeve his necessities although hee hath made his complaint for two yeares last past’. Similarly, in 1683 Margaret Willasie of Woodplumpton went to JPs because the township ‘have refused severall of your petitioners addresses’.

Others still had been given relief, but felt it was not enough. Sarah Byrom of Kenyon, for example, petitioned in 1675 that she was getting 12d per week, but ‘about two moneths agoe shee desired to have an increase of allowance because of the scarcity and dearenesse of provision’. She was refused, so she went to Sessions.

The reasons for refusal were rarely stated. Perhaps most often the township simply didn’t feel that relief was deserved. Some petitioners, though, claimed to have been tricked or abused by overseers. In 1683, Anthony English alleged that when he asked Ralph Holt of Breightmet, overseer, for relief he merely ‘beateth & abuseth your poore petitioner’, and ‘threatneth him if hee make any complaint against him hee will nayle his ears to the crosse’. In 1667, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Goodson of Pemberton and her two siblings told how the overseers did not ‘take any care but rather threaten me with discourageble words’; ‘especially’, she petitioned, ‘one of the overseers wife’.

Petitions give some hints about the process of presentation, too. There are references to attendance at the court, which suggests rather strongly that petitioners were expected to appear in person. In a fascinating appeal from 1693, Elizabeth Pilkington of Brindle told of her lameness and sickliness, and recounted how she ‘hath severall times made application to the Overseers of the Poore of Brindle who knowing her not able to goe or ride to the sessions will allow her noe relief’. But now, she wrote, ‘your petitioner procureing a friend to bring her in a cart to Ormeschurch’, she ‘presents yow with this petition’.

In another explicit statement, husbandman Robert Latham of Bispham insisted in 1699 that he and his family were ‘really objects of charity as to your worships will appeare when they are called to the barr’. Perhaps the best example is that of widower James Hoyle of Bacup, who even brought his children to Sessions and presented them before the justices, informing them that he was ‘left with four small children which your petitioner has brought hither to this sessions to shew them to your worshipps’.

But what, if anything, do they tell us about that crucial question – who actually wrote the petitions?

Unfortunately the answer is not very much. The handwriting in most cases is good – which probably suggests a professional or at least experienced scribe. It’s usually relatively modern, too: in most cases a lateish secretary hand until the 1660s or ’70s, before transitioning into italic thereafter. Spelling tends to follow the expected conventions – becoming closer and closer to modern forms as the 17th century wore on.

This all suggests the vast majority of petitions, as we would expect, were written by experienced, educated writers.

So where does this leave us as historians from below? Which bits actually tell us about the poor? Which bits tell us about the ‘reality’ of poverty (so far as that can be recovered by a modern first-world historian sat behind a laptop)?

I think there are bits that we need to be very careful of.

The language, in particularly, is a tempting fruit. Petitions, for example, describe poverty as ‘hard’, ‘sad’, or (less frequently) ‘cold’. It was characterized by ‘nakedness’ and ‘misery’, ‘ruin’ and ‘beggary’.

Thomas Heigham of Ince described ‘misserable poverty & want’ in 1686; Priscilla Butler of Rochdale was in a ‘sad condicion’ in 1657. Richard Hodgson of Carleton was, in 1649, ‘brought to miserable povertie and a labyrinth of necessitie and wante’. The same year Margaret Salesbury of Chaigeley, who had been plundered by Prince Rupert’s men, was likely to be ‘exposed to the miseryes of this wide and woefull world’.

In 1705 (in what was undoubtedly an unusual case) Elizabeth Bovell evoked misery and rootlessness. She had married in New York, and when her husband died his will left her an estate in Lancashire. Leaving America, she was captured by the French, but found her way to England only to discover the will was ‘a fake thing’, and that neither her husband ‘nor any of his predicesors before him never had a foot of land or teniment but what they paide for yearly rent’. She needed money to keep her before she went to Ireland, asking JPs to ‘yeild relife to the comfortles and most miserable wido who wanders like a pilgrim in a wildernes’.

Is this really the authentic voice of the poor, though? Perhaps. But we can’t be sure. Perhaps at the very least it reflects an understanding of poverty that was common to the poor and their wealthier neighbours who actually wrote the petitions.

But the process behind each document does also give us some areas of confidence. If one was expected to present in person, then there were limits to how much one could embellish the truth. Perhaps the scribe was another check and balance.

So, if we might want to take the literary flourishes with a pinch of salt, I think we can probably trust some of the more vivid stories.

We can probably also get something from counting references to the causes of poverty, too. In Lancashire, at least, I think it’s useful to know that 43 per cent of petitioners said they were old, 50 per cent said they were sick, 40 per cent were single, and only 4 per cent said they were unemployed or mentioned wider economic problems.

But let’s perhaps finish on another note. The very existence of the petitions is, in a sense, telling us as much about the poor as their contents. This was something that Steve Hindle pointed out some time ago. They were negotiating tools. They show the poor trying to change the way they were treated by their wealthier neighbours. They show, perhaps, a growing belief that local government had a duty to stop the deserving poor from starving.

The poor would not have seen petitioning as a ‘history from below’. They would have seen it as a crucial weapon for fighting their corner.

8 thoughts on “Petitions of the People?

  1. Great blog Jonathan! I At the end of the day the petitions with all their flaws are the best record we have of paupers lives and of paupers using the parish system to improve their lot – much like the Old Bailey ‘Session’ papers slightly flawed but wonderful.

  2. Thank you for your post – very interesting and insightful (as is your book, which, coincidentally, I finished not so long ago!). At the end of the day, all sources have a weakness, and as historians we have to simply work around them – part of the job!

  3. What a wonderful, if tricky, set of sources! The evidence you’ve come across of how they were presented and communicated is especially interesting – poor old Elizabeth Pilkington.

    Some of the petitions for relief that I’ve come across in parish (rather than county) collections have orders for relief from the JPs written out on the back. In other words, the same piece of paper was transformed from a request ‘from below’ into a command ‘from above’. As you say, this suggests that petitions are as much an action as they are a ‘voice’ or a text.

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