Clements Hall
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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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Voices of the Victorian Poor: speaking for themselves

Dick Hunter from our Poverty Research Group tells us about an important new online resource from the National Archivesnow available for research and teaching about the lives of the Victorian poor during the period 1834-1900. This is at 

Victorian Poor resource

How did the Victorian poor feel about their poverty, the conditions in which they lived, and their rights to welfare? 

There is now free access to over 3,500 letters from paupers, along with petitions, sworn statements and advocate letters (those written on behalf of paupers). They show paupers were not passive recipients of decisions made about them. They could, and did, speak for themselves, and the letters show how they did so. Even the very poorest members of society could be literate, understand the poor laws, regulations and rules, and able and willing to resist or contest the power of the national and local state.

Letters explain paupers' situations in their own words, and provide insight into the lives of those whose thoughts and opinions are often considered ‘lost to history.' They are testament to the agency of the poor and their insistence to be viewed as citizens with rights.

Themes cover:

• complaints of conditions, and treatment
• breakup of families and family homes
• concerns about medical care
• paupers knowing and establishing their 'rights'

You can access these letters online by address/place, and there are filters which include medical terms, employment, family/home, crime/punishment, daily life, politics and authorities.

Letters from York include one from Mary Herbert, of Hillyards Buildings, 66 Skeldergate. Mary confronts poor law authorities over perceived injustice, writing to the Poor Law Commissioner in London on 5 January 1848 :

Hoping you will pardon the liberty I have taken of thus Addressing you, but necessity compels me to it, as I am now in my 74 Year and unable to do any-thing for my livelihood, in consequence of which I made application to the Board of Guardians and told them I belonged to Pickering, but since the passing of the new Settlement Act I have been thrown upon the Parish of St Maurice in York in which Parish I had 2s. per week allowed for some-time, which was the same as what I had from Pickering before the passing of the above named Act, but for the last 12 Months having lived in the Parish of St Johns Micklegate, and receiving pay from it for some-time, untill the last three weeks when the Guardians took it of, and told me that I was to go back to Pickering and the Guardian of St Johns threatned to throw my things in the street if I did not leave the Parish, as I belonged to P[ic]keri[ng] and if I did not go he would make me. I have since then Applied to the Relieving Officer and he gave me the enclosed Note, but the Guardian of St John’s will not let me have any-thing allowed any way, now I ask you Gentlemen if Mr Stansfield has all the Law in his own hands, and if he can throw my things in the Street as he has threatned, and if they can force me to go into the Workhouse at my Age. I also want to know whether I belong to Pickering or to the Parish of St Maurice in York where I have resided upwards of 7 Years an answer will greatly oblige Your Humble Servant Mary Herbert Hillyards Buildings No 66 Skeldergate.


Map of Skeldergate in 1852 (Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries)

The National Archives online resource is complemented by a book, In Their Own Write: Contesting the New Poor Law, 1834–1900 (States, People, and the History of Social Change) by Steven King, Paul Carter, Peter Jones and Carol Beardmore (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2023).