The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Sharon Howard, an early modern historian and a project manager at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield. Here she shows how use of a digital ‘macroscope’ can both reveal the changing nature of local petitioning in eighteenth-century London and make these documents more easily available to anyone with an interest in this important set of sources.

Last year at the Voices of the People symposium, Brodie Waddell argued the importance of amplifying the voices of the people through digitisation and online access. This, along with another symposium post by Jonathan Healey on petitions, got me thinking about the petitions addressed to magistrates in the voluminous records of eighteenth-century London and Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, which were digitised several years ago by the London Lives project.

Although already digital, these petitions have been difficult to access within the London Lives website because of the sheer size and variety of the Sessions Papers. I didn’t even know how many petitions there might be (other than “a lot”). The result of this musing was a plan to discover and extract every identifiable petition in the Sessions Papers, and make the resulting metadata and text corpus available as open data (more information can be found via the London Lives Petitions project website).

So: what can you do with 10,000 petitions? Here’s just one, a personal favourite, from Ester Cutler to the Middlesex Sessions in 1715:


Worthy gentellmen of the Court your humble petishnor Ester Cutler begs Consederacion being a Weddow Woman & nothing to live apon but what she can gitt out of Selling a few herbs so that she humbly desiers to be taken of that tax of paying to the poor your

humble petishenor

Ester Cutler

Ester and her petition offer much of compelling interest to me: she presents herself as a lone, poor, working woman, but a ratepayer, not (yet) a pauper. She could write, but far from fluently, and her spelling is idiosyncratic to say the least. I know that this petition is unusual: it’s rare for petitioners to write their own petitions and it’s missing much of the usual conventions and formalities. But just how unusual is it?

*  *  *

What I’m going to do here is to step back from the seductive voices of the petitions themselves, to look for larger patterns in the mass of documents. First things first: what am I actually counting? The Sessions Papers are probably a familiar type of record for many readers of this blog: assorted loose papers, one bundle per court session, relating to the work of magistrates at Sessions of the Peace (Quarter Sessions). Any file could include petitions, examinations, calendars of prisoners and recognizances, copies of court orders, and much besides.

London Lives has Sessions Papers from three of these courts: Middlesex (by far the largest), Westminster and the City of London. The amount of business conducted at such courts varied considerably from one sessions to the next. In addition, the Sessions Papers were not a record of the court’s formal business (like indictments or order books) or of financial commitments (like recognizances). They were really just random Stuff. So their chances of long-term survival were likely to be haphazard.

llpp_sp_image_counts_2016-10-01London Lives Sessions Papers: image counts per year 1690-1799

The first chart above (as with all the following charts, click the link for a full-size version) simply shows annual counts of page images (not ‘documents’) in the London Lives Sessions Papers. In total, there are about 90,000 page images in 1250 files. The chart highlights the short-term fluctuations and uneven survival of the records, especially the nine years from 1738 when very few files have survived. Any attempt to trace patterns – in the whole or in a sub-set of documents such as petitions – needs to pay careful attention to those variations. Nonetheless, the chart also indicates quite clearly the substantial expansion of the courts’ business in the latter part of the 18th century.

But, while the Sessions Papers indicate substantially growing court business, it’s also clear that petition numbers are declining from the 1720s after a peak around the mid-1710s. Does this necessarily mean there were fewer petitioners in court though? It could be a measure of changing recording practices rather than petitioning activity, as the amounts of paper to be dealt with expanded. (I have some work to do on records of responses to petitions, and will be looking for mentions of petitions that are no longer extant.)

llpp_petitions_in_sp_page_counts_2016-10-01Petitions in Sessions Papers, 1690-1799

*  *  *

In my initial explorations of the petitions themselves I’ve mainly focused on one simple linguistic measure of petitions so far: word counts. This deceptively mundane method has been used to considerable effect by Tim Hitchcock and Bill Turkel very recently on Old Bailey Online trial reports.

Text mining as a methodology helps test and problematize the assumptions one brings to the evidence that is relied upon: to test both the quality of that evidence and the ways that it is used… It does not replace “close reading” and traditional archival research, but it does create a kind of macroscope, allowing the location of patterns made invisible by the sheer volume of inherited text. (article)

The chart below plots the length of every petition in the dataset (after stripping out marginal annotations and so on). The density of dots highlights more and less intense activity. The first thing to note is that most petitions are short documents, mainly clustering between 150-250 words (the average over the whole period is just under 225 words), of which a fair chunk is taken up by petition formalities. But they’re getting longer. There are 81 petitions of more than 750 words; 66 of them are dated after 1750.

llpp_word_counts_2016-10-01London Lives Petitions Word Counts, 1690-1799 (takes a little while to load)

In order to explore these long-term patterns in more detail, I’ve separated out two categories for comparison, focusing so far on subsets that are relatively straightforward to identify: firstly, “parish” petitions; and secondly, a breakdown of petitioners by gender.

Petitions from parish officials represent the largest single type of petition, about 47% of the total, of which the vast majority were from churchwardens and overseers of the poor concerning disputed pauper removals; the rest were mainly complaints about poor rates assessments, negligent officials, or highway repairs. The “other” category is mostly petitions from individuals or groups of individuals (such as prisoners), but also contains a few hundred petitions from non-parochial institutions (eg hospitals and guilds) which I’ll need to separate out later. Even though this categorisation is a rather crude work in progress, it suggests strongly that petitions from individuals account for most of the fall in petition numbers.

llpp_parish_petitions_vs_other_2016-10-01London Lives parish petitions vs ‘others’, 1690-1799

Not only were parish petitions restricted in subject, they were very similar linguistically, often drawn up by solicitors, and with careful reference to the procedures of the laws of settlement (a typical example). Comparison of the word counts of parish petitions with the ‘other’ category shows clearly how homogeneous they were. The first indicator is that the length of parish petitions is much more consistent than the rest. But additionally, they contain far fewer unique words.

llpp_wordcounts_parish_vs_other_2016-10-01Average word counts: parish petitions vs other, 1690-1799

The second strand of analysis focusing on the gender of petitioners excludes parish petitions entirely (though most of those don’t have named petitioners anyway): 4956 ‘other’ petitions have at least one identifiable named petitioner, for a total of 6228 petitioners, 4909 men and 1317 women (plus 2 indeterminate). So, overall 21% are women, but that hides significant long-term trends. Before 1720 women constitute almost 30% of petitioners; over the next half century, 17%; and from 1770 the proportion falls to just 7%. Where did they all go?

llpp_gender_petitioners_2016-10-01London Lives Petitioners: gender of petitioners, 1690-1799

Turning to word counts again, women’s petitions are shorter than those from men: they average 197 words to the men’s 254. The longest petition from a woman (at 2050 words) is that of Mary Leader (1772), another widow, but one of very different social status from Ester Cutler, and although the gender of its instigator may be unusual by that date, its subject matter and form are not at all uncharacteristic of late 18th-century petitions in the Sessions Papers: it concerns ‘An Act for Paving Wapping Street in the County of Middlesex and the Several Streets and Passages leading into the same…’

The longest petition of all, at 3375 words, is dated 1793, and is from Joshua Perkin, a surveyor. This one, testimony to the expanding built (and regulatory) environment of late 18th-century London, references

An Act for the further and better regulation of Buildings and party walls and for the more effectually preventing Mischiefs by Fire within the Cities of London and Westminster and the Liberties thereof and other the Parishes precincts and places within the weekly Bills of Mortality the Parishes of Saint Marylebon Paddington Saint Pancras and Saint Luke at Chelsea in the County of Middlesex…

Yep: it’s about building regulations; what could be more modern?

* * *

But let’s go back to Ester Cutler, whose petition could be a world away from those long, legalistic complaints about breaches of regulations of the late 18th century (her entire petition is shorter than the titles of the Acts of Parliament that they invoke). Even for the early 18th century, in many ways her petition is hardly typical. It’s from a woman, who are always in a minority of petitioners, for a start. It’s just 51 words in length, and in part it’s so short because she has omitted almost all the normal conventions and formalities of petitions. But in other ways, it’s not so unusual. In 1715, 28% of named petitioners were women. It was a year of short petitions too, with an average length for non-parish petitions of just 168 words. And it was a strikingly busy year for petitioning – judged by surviving petitions, the busiest in the entire 110 years of data. There are 277 petitions, 225 of them for Middlesex alone.

Complaints about assessments for poor rates, too, are a recurring theme of the petitions. Research on petitions tends to focus on pauper petitions and letters; but the petitions presented to the magistrates in 18th-century London came from a much broader swathe of the population and covered many grievances and areas of conflict. There are pauper petitions and they are vitally important as rare sources for the most marginal, but it’s important to be able to put them in context: pauper petitioners were very much in the minority.

Petitions here were more likely to be used against the interests of the poorest: by parish officials trying to get rid of paupers who’d been foisted on them by other parishes, but also by better off (if only slightly) parishioners trying to avoid, or reduce, paying towards their parish poor’s upkeep. Ester was precariously poised between those two groups in 1715. She could address the authority of the magistrates for help, though it’s not clear whether they listened. But by the end of the century, it seems, even that channel for relief would have been effectively closed to her.

8 thoughts on “The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?

  1. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

  2. Thanks for this wonderful survey of this amazing collection, Sharon. The one thing that struck me is the relative degree of *stability* in London sessions petitioning. I completely agree with you about the points of change that you highlight here and they are certainly interesting. Yet I’m struck by the fact that despite the huge changes in metropolitan population, poor law practice, judicial policies, etc., the number of petitions in the 1790s seems to be roughly similar to the number in the 1690s. It seems like explaining the continuity would be even more difficult than explaining the changes!

  3. Very impressive data and an interesting first analysis. You have the tools to bring in new perspectives to work with petitions and supplications. Even if the material is not easy to handle, it seems to be a really new approach compared to others used since the 1990s.

  4. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society – Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

  5. Pingback: Was early modern England a petitioning society? | the many-headed monster

  6. Pingback: Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts | the many-headed monster

  7. Very, very belatedly… Many thanks Brodie and Andreas for your kind comments.

    Brodie – yes, I’m tending to focus on change here but overall there is a sort of equilibrium. I need to redo some of the graphs but I’m thinking more that the spike of the early 18th century might be the big story, which I need to think about more.

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