The First Century of Welfare

Lancaster Castle – the imposing home of the north Lancashire sitting of Quarter Sessions, one of the locations at which the county’s paupers petitioned for relief.

Some time around Christmas 1698, Thomas Gerrard of Little Hilton asked his neighbour for help.

Gerrard was sick, and he had a young family. He was poor, and wanted to make the case to magistrates at nearby Wigan that he should be receiving formal relief. It was not an especially long journey, but Gerrard felt unable to travel, so he called upon Richard Tyldesley – a local labourer – to deliver a petition to the next meeting of the Wigan Quarter Sessions.

These men were just two of the many hundreds of thousands of individuals whose lives were touched by England’s unique early system of state poor relief.

They were people who were there at the birth of state social welfare, and the ‘Poor Law’ they knew – ordered by Tudor statutes but really developing ‘on the ground’ in the seventeenth century – was the distant ancestor of our own system of benefits.

This was the age when the ‘overseer of the poor’ became a ubiquitous feature of the English parish, when village notables got used to meeting at least once a year to discuss matters of poverty, and when every English man, woman and child grew to know which parish had responsibility for their relief.

This, then, was the ‘first century of welfare’. And it is the lives of the people who experienced it that make up the subject of my first book, published this coming autumn by Boydell and Brewer.


Whether he wrote it, or whether he got some local scribe to do it for him, Tyldesley’s petition described the plight of his neighbour with an extraordinary vividness.

‘Thomas Gerrard’, it said, ‘hath lain sick in bed these five weeks, his wife is now in child bed’ and though she had almost recovered she had ‘now relapsed’. ‘The husband and newborn child lie in one poor bed’, it continued, with ‘the three children scarce recovered of sickness.’

There was ‘neither meat nor fire in the house’, and all they were getting in relief was six shillings, ‘which will not pay and maintain a person to look after them’. Had not their neighbours offered charity, they would all have ‘starved and miserably perished’. But such gifts had limits, and ‘now their charity begins to slacken’. It was, said Tyldesley, impossible to see the family surviving for more than three more days without a formal dole. Fortunately, the JPs who heard the petition were moved enough to order one: the family got a pension of three shillings and fourpence a month.

We know about the sad case of Thomas Gerrard because the petition itself has survived. It is, in fact, one of thousands – mostly dating from the seventeenth century – of such appeals in the papers of the Lancashire Quarter Sessions at the County Record Office in Preston. It is a wonderful set of source material – one of the greatest collections of records about pre-modern poverty anywhere in the world. Tucked away on these fragile and faded sheets of paper are thousands of human stories – the shadowy remains of challenging lives in an age long past.

Those stories are often heartbreaking ones. The petitions told tales of material deprivation quite horrifying to our modern eyes. One petitioner, Mary Healey, told in 1693 of being ‘destitute of anything save the cold earth’. Another, Thomas Hunt, reported in 1674 that he had been forced ‘for mere want’ to walk ‘barefooted and bare-legged this last winter, in all the pinching frost and snow’. Elizabeth Hoole, an abandoned mother from Livesey, lame – she said – and sick, lamented in 1683 that she had ‘nothing but straw and a few rags to lie in’, and even these were ‘spoiled with vermin’. Widowed Alice Roberts had, in 1708, ‘no habitation, no bed to lie on’, nothing ‘but the cold frosty ground, nor a penny of money to buy her a mouthful of bread to put in her hungry belly’.

But they also show the sheer resilience of the poor. They show them ‘making shift’ – selling things here, borrowing money there. Always working for wages where they possibly could. Anne Harmson of Manchester told in 1651 of her willingness to work ‘such days as some neighbours hath need to set her to work’. Anthony Higginson, from the tiny north Lancashire hamlet of Priest Hutton, recounted doing ‘so hard a labour’ as ‘killing of foxes, badgers and other devouring creatures’ in order to get by.

They also show the willingness of family and neighbours to help out in hard times. In 1662, Ellen Woodhouse told justices that she would probably have perished, ‘but by the merciful goodness and love of her friends and neighbours’. Alice Moone of Newsham recounted relying on what little she could earn, and the ‘charitable benevolence of well-disposed neighbours out of their tender pity towards her children’.

Perhaps most importantly, the petitions give a counterweight to those who have – then and now – written off the poor as lazy scroungers. Sure, there were those who seem to have abused the system: one pauper was accused by her village of having developed a ‘habit of laziness’, pretending lameness by ‘wrapping a parcel of old rags about her legs’. But in most cases they told of falling poor through simple, devastating, personal misfortune.

And this is important, for as much as these cases are petitions – political documents aimed at highlighting the ‘deservingness’ of the petitioner – they also had to be defended in open court. Paupers were expected to present their petition in front of a magistrate – their village might even have sent their own lawyers to argue against them. The claims they made had to stand up to scrutiny, and most of them did. So far as we can tell, the majority of appeals were upheld. The tales they tell carry conviction.

They tell of old age, of sickness, of family breakdown through death and abandonment (in most cases this meant women being abandoned by men). Occasionally, large numbers of petitions were received in one year – the traces of economic depressions, usually caused by high food prices: ‘cost of living crises’, if you like. In the evocative words of one petition, that of John Troughton of Arkholme, poverty came out of the ‘many crosses and losses in this world’.

These ‘crosses and losses’ were the main reasons people looked, like John Troughton did, to England’s evolving system of poor relief. One of the greatest experiments in social policy in all of human history, the English Poor Law was always so much more than the workhouses and whipping posts of popular memory. When it gets described in the newspapers today, the ‘Elizabethan Poor Law’ is usually portrayed as harsh, unsympathetic, perhaps even barbaric.

But the brutal treatment of vagrants was just part of the story – far more important, and far more lasting, was the creation of a system in which every parish, large and small, rural and urban, northern and southern, was legally obliged to look after its poor. It was probably a major reason behind the ending of famine in England after 1623. And it was one of the few comforts available to the people whose stories are told in those thousands of Lancashire petitions.

The First Century of Welfare: Poverty and Poor Relief in Lancashire, c. 1620-1730 will be published in the autumn by Boydell and Brewer, RRP: £17.99.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Looking forward to reading your book, Jon. As you know, I’m a bit obsessed with petitions too. They’re a brilliant source and it’s great to see them getting more attention!

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