Pauper Responses to the Central Poor Law Authorities by Natalie Carter and Steven King

Our Social History 46.2 article ‘“I think we ought not to acknowledge them [paupers] as that encourages them to write”: the administrative state, power and the Victorian pauper’ focuses on the responses from the central poor law authorities (the “Centre”) to initial complaints from poor people and paupers both inside and outside of the workhouse. For the outdoor poor these complaints centred on dissatisfaction with the amount or nature of out-relief they had been allowed or the fact that relief had been denied altogether.  For the indoor poor the majority of the complaints tended to be around issues of ill-treatment, neglect or poor conditions in the workhouse.  We highlighted that the Centre quickly developed routine standardised ways of responding to these complaints.

Writing for Redress

For those seeking redress for what they considered unfair relief decisions, the Centre adopted a standard text in their response which excluded intervention in individual cases (over time they would assert explicitly they were restricted by the 15th section of the Poor Law Amendment Act, 1834). The Centre did, however, have a duty to prevent any abuse carried out at a local level and considering this supervisory role their standard response also involved writing to local guardians for their observations on contested cases. With complaints regarding conditions or ill-treatment in the workhouse, the pauper letter writer rarely received an initial response from the Centre. Instead their letters were sent directly to the local guardians for comment. Such a routine often caused problems for the pauper complainer as it tended to weaken their narrative control of the complaint without them necessarily knowing. Since writing our article we have begun to investigate how the Centre’s standard response mechanisms were received by paupers. While neither form of response described above encouraged the poor to continue writing to the Centre (indeed the responses were designed to dissuade correspondence) for many writers, receiving such a response was far from the end of the narrative. A response of non-interference or effectively barring the pauper altogether from initial conversations, was regarded by the poor as both insulting and inadequate as the following case studies illustrate.

Challenging the Centre

Mary Kelly wrote on 23 January 1863 from York to the Poor Law Board stating that she was 74 years old and had recently had a fall, seriously injuring her ankle.  These circumstances, claimed Kelly, forced her to apply to the local guardians for relief for the first time in her life. However, she was denied out-relief and offered only the workhouse. Kelly was unwilling to accept indoor relief as she considered that she would return to health over the next few weeks. She claimed that she would be ‘pined to death if my distress is not looKed to by your Honourable Board’.[1]  It is clear that she received the standard response of non-interference in individual cases, ‘being expressly prohibited by Law from doing so’, quoted this back to the Centre in a further letter dated 30 January 1863. Here Kelly stated that reading the reply had ‘lead myself and all who Knows my distress to look with Abhorance and Astonishment at the decision of the poor Law Board’. She admonished them, saying that it appeared ‘from this rule or if I might say sort of rule that, let the distress be ever so great even to cause death that And the death to occur through the neglect of a Board of Guardians that the Board of Commissioners have no Jurisdiction to enable them [to decide] on such important matters’. Kelly continued, arguing that the Board received a large amount of public money ‘for the purpose as it is Generally understood [to] have the Just Claims of they poor maintained’. That this notion was more than mere rhetoric is borne out by the many thousands of letters written by the poor seeking redress that we have found in our project. Kelly’s case exposes the limits of the Centre’s power to create a standardised “administrative” relief system acceptable to the poor, noting as she did that the York guardians had given out-relief to others who were not as ill or as old as she was. Thus she rejected the Centre’s claim of impotence to intervene in her case and pointedly remarked that the discretion afforded to local guardians allowed them to refuse her ‘Because the[y] have it in their power to treat all cases partially or impartially’.[2]

Epistolary Agency

Letter from a complainant at the Colchester Union in 1862

For the indoor poor the standard process of dealing with complaints proved to be equally frustrating. G J Jones, an inmate of the Colchester workhouse, wrote to Sir John Walsham, poor law inspector, in January 1862.[3]  Writing on behalf of himself and the other male able-bodied inmates, Jones complained of the inadequate quality and quantity of the food, and the lack of decent medical attention for both an unnamed pauper and his daughter. Jones claimed he had asked to speak to the master on these matters but was never given the option of a hearing.[4] As was usual with indoor pauper complainer’s letters it was passed to the local guardians for comment. Upon being told that nothing further needed to be done in this case Jones was prompted to write a further letter in February 1862. He bluntly noted that ‘the able bodied men of this Union are at a loss to conceive how the Poor Law Board have come to the conclusion that our complaints require no further interference on their part’. He observed that the information the Board had received on the matter could only have come from the master as they had not been called as witnesses. Jones repeated his request that a proper investigation be carried out, threatening that if not a copy of the correspondence would be sent to the Home Secretary and that if necessary the able-bodied male inmates would ‘adopt what other course we may think fit’. [5] The correspondence concerning Jones is particularly instructive. It shows how paupers could easily lose control of their own accounts and have their narratives circumvented. Yet here we see in Jones’s follow up letters a refusal to be written out of the conversation. He was adamant that the men were able to give ‘incontestable proof’ in relation to their complaints. In so doing he sought to counteract the version of events provided by the workhouse master in the absence of other witnesses.

Tenacious Advocacy

While in our article we focus on letters written by paupers and other poor people we conclude here with a case from someone acting as advocate to the poor.[6] The Reverend Hugh Matthie wrote from Worthenbury near Wrexham in January 1835 concerning a 75 year old man named Edward Humphries. He noted that Humphries was incapacitated by illness and unable to work. On Matthie’s suggestion Humphries saw the Kiddington (his own parish) overseer to secure a small weekly allowance so he could remain in the parish of Worthenbury. On Humphries being refused Matthie was prompted to write to the Poor Law Commission (hereafter Commission) to ask if there was no means of compelling relief in such a case.[7] The Commission wrote back stating that the overseer was within the law to refuse relief in this case and, just as in their responses to the poor themselves, Matthie was referred to the 15th section of the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) as confirmation that they were unable to interfere in individual cases. While the Commission may have expected that referencing the law would be sufficient to close down any further conversation it had the opposite effect on Matthie. He wrote back to the Commission and stated that he had referred ‘to the 15th section of the Act, & find by it that the Commissioners have the power of making rules for the administration of relief to the poor; and, though they cannot interfere in any individual case, yet a general rule issued by them would apply to individual cases. [8]

The crux of the matter here is that although the Centre developed an administrative model to close down conversations or requests to intervene in individual relief cases it was largely unsuccessful. There are numerous instances of paupers, those who classified themselves as poor (though not in receipt of relief) and those better-of neighbours who wrote as advocates, all engaged in “follow-up” correspondence. Such letters, where the poor and their advocates point to what they consider the absurdity of the standard response of non-interference in individual cases, demonstrate a real accounting of self-worth of the poor in themselves and a very strong belief that they had a right to have their grievances not just heard but addressed.


Natalie Carter is an AHRC-funded Research Associate at Nottingham Trent University, working on the “In Their Own Write” project. Prior to this she worked for the British Association for Local History (BALH) and The National Archives on large scale cataloguing projects focusing on the records of the New Poor Law. She has written extensively on the content and nature of the new poor law correspondence archive.  More recently she has written with Peter Jones ‘‘I am not one of those…to set people agst the laws”’: Redrawing the Boundaries of the Epistolary Relationship Under the New Poor Law’, which appears in Continuity and Change, 34:3 (2019). Her current writing commitments include a co-authored book scheduled for publication in 2022 provisionally titled In Their Own Write: Contesting the New Poor Law 1834-1900; as well as articles on anonymous pauper letter writers and on how the poor sourced material for, and carried out, the act of writing under the Old and New Poor Law.
Steven King is Professor of Economic and Social History at Nottingham Trent University, and PI on the AHRC Standard Project Grant “In Their Own Write”. Prior to this he has held grants from the AHRC, Leverhulme Trust, Wellcome Trust, EU and British Academy. He is best known for his work on pauper letter writing under the Old Poor Law. His 2019 book Writing the Lives of the English Poor (McGill-Queens University Press) won the 2019 British Academy Peter Townsend Prize and the 2020 British Records Association Janette Harley Prize. He is currently working, with Natalie Carter and others, on a jointly authored book arising from the current AHRC project and on articles dealing with eavesdropping, memory and languages of contestation.


[1] The National Archives (TNA): MH 12/14406, Mary Kelly, York, to the Poor Law Board, 23 January 1863. Spelling and grammatical construction are all as the original text, both here and in other quoted extracts. While literacy was improving for the poorest elements of the working classes by the 1860s, it was (here and in the wider sample) fragile, imperfect and sometimes transient.

[2] TNA: MH 12/14406, Mary Kelly, York, to the Poor Law Board, 30 January 1863.

[3] Paupers occasionally wrote directly to the assistant poor law commissioners or poor law inspectors.

[4] TNA: MH 12/3436, G J Jones, Colchester, to the Poor Law Board, 28 January 1862.

[5] TNA: MH 12/3436, G J Jones, Colchester, to the Poor Law Board, 13 February 1862.

[6] These three key writers (paupers, poor people and advocates) will be explored in detail in our forthcoming monograph: N. Carter, P. Carter, P. Jones and S. King, In Their Own Write: Contesting the New Poor Law 1834-1900, McGill-Queen’s University Press, forthcoming 2021.

[7] TNA: MH 12/16104, Hugh Matthie, Rector of Worthenbury, to the Poor Law Commission, 1 September 1835.

[8] TNA: MH 12/16104, Hugh Matthie, Rector of Worthenbury, to the Poor Law Commission, 9 February 1835. Matthie points out that by the 27th section of the Act it seems that two justices of the peace can order relief to an aged person disabled from work, without the need to require that the person resides in the workhouse.  The difficulty for Matthie and the pauper Edward Humphries was that Matthie was writing in 1835 and while the Wrexham Union was in the process of being set up it was not officially declared as a union until 1837.  This therefore denied the poor of the “benefit” as Matthie called it, of the 27th section of the Act. Matthie felt it was hard on the poor that during this transition period they should be denied relief.