Re-writing the Old Poor Law – with Volunteers’ help
Staffordshire Archives has been working with Keele University for the last two years on a project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council called ‘Small Bills and Petty Finance’.
Funding supports volunteers in three locations, Brighton, Carlisle and Stafford, in tackling bundles of miscellaneous overseers’ bills and receipts, sometimes catalogued as vouchers. Each piece of paper has been unfolded, numbered if not previously given an item number, and the content details entered into a database line-by-line. Vouchers range from a scrap containing a single entry, where the payee is illiterate and signs with a cross, to pages of lawyers’ bills replete with technical terms.
Collaboration opens rarely used gems
These sources have rarely been used for historical research before, and never in a systematic way. This project has developed a model which sees academics collaborating with volunteers to understand the vouchers, not least since they frequently contain local terminology or even versions of dialect in the handwritten details. It also encourages everyone who collects the data to participate in the research: family-history skills are essential to find out more from these shreds and patches. Whether a person is named in one voucher or many, we can hope to find them in other sources like parish registers and early censuses, to write partial biographies for anyone who came into contact with parish relief. This can include the paupers, but oddly we already know quite a bit about the people who needed assistance. The really innovative aspects of the research allow us to find out more about the parish trades people, and the (typically) men elected to parish office.
It’s all in the name
Of course It helps if the people named in vouchers had unusual surnames. George Fieldstaff is much easier to find in parallel records than Ann Smith. Nonetheless the blog posts from project staff and volunteers make the most of the opportunities for record linkage. Work so far can be read www.thepoorlaw.org and you can keep up with the project on Twitter @AHRCpoorlaw