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Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

Clements Hall Local History Group

Exploring the Scarcroft, Clementhorpe, South Bank and Bishophill areas of York

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Poverty Research Project: sources for 18th century family history

Dick Hunter writes about a recent enquiry:

We recently received an enquiry from Sydney, Australia. Alan Atkinson is researching an ancestor, James Atkinson, and plans to use James and his immediate family in a project next year at the University of Durham. He asked what records he might find of James's pauper experience.

James Atkinson was a stay maker (corset maker) in York, who collapsed into poverty in the 1770s and died on 21 December 1796.  His home from 1773-74 until his death was a room in Hungate, which he shared with his wife Ann and four or five children. He was buried as a pauper at St Saviour's.  He lived mainly in that parish (and married there in 1751), although appears to have lived briefly in St John's parish, Ousebridge, around 1770.

Staymaker Tate

The Stay Maker, engraved by Joseph Haynes, after William Hogarth. (Photo © Tate,

While our own poverty research project focuses on a later period, we were able to direct Alan to several useful sources. A pawnbroker pledge book at Explore Archives has individual entries itemised. The book was used by George Fettes, a pawnbroker and businessman, with a trade which ranged from tourist visitors who came to the races, to the poorest of those living in York's streets, courts and alleys.

Alan was delighted to discover in the pledge book 48 entries for James and Ann Atkinson, plus their six or seven year old daughter, For example, a pair of black velvet breeches are deposited on 9 July 1777, and a waistcoat valued at sixpence five days later.

We suggested Alan contact Julie-Ann Vickers at Explore York Archives. She advised Alan also to contact the Borthwick Institute for Archives to consult parish records, as relief of the poor was handled at the parish level prior to 1834. She offered this link to a description of the parish records for St Saviour’s and suggested Alan consult overseers' and churchwardens' accounts, as well as vestry minutes, as payments for poor relief may appear in these records.

Alan shared more of James's history with us: 

  • his sister Elizabeth, a nun at the Bar Convent, who died of TB in 1779, is documented in wonderful detail in the convent records.

  • James's wife Ann worked as a washerwoman at the convent when things got tough.

  • his parents were small landowners at Ilkley.

  • his grandfather was steward to the declining Catholic family of Middleton of Stockeld.

  • his aunt's husband was steward to Sir Thomas Gascoigne .

  • his son got an apprenticeship in Teesdale, married into a little money, and turned Protestant. 

This story in part emerged due to interest in our website and social media activity.

For more about George Fettes, pawnbroker, Alison Backhouse's book, The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat is recommended. This book includes much about the business, including items pledged, customers and where they lived. It is reasonably priced and available from booksellers, or from Explore York. Details below.


Explore York Libraries and Archives  cat. ref. PAW, Pledge Book of George Fettes of Lady Peckett's Yard/Stonegate, pawnbroker, 1777-78.

Alison Backhouse, The Worm-Eaten Waistcoat, (self-published, 2003). 

Allanah Tomkins, 'Pawnbroking and the survival strategies of the urban poor' in  1770s York' in Steven King and Allanah Tomkins (editors) , The poor in England 1700-1850: An economy of makeshifts (Manchester University Press, 2003) pages 166-198.