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“I have every date regular, as I received it, in a book I keep on purpose”: Accounting and being accounted for under the old English poor law

Tuesday 17 November 2020, 4.30PM

Speaker(s): Elizabeth Spencer, University of York

In 1828, the widow Elizabeth Newell wrote to her home parish of Yoxall in Staffordshire to make a request of the poor law authorities: “I have taken the liberty to send for my small account for I am now ill and in need of it if you please to send me a dark gown and a small print [?] yards…I hope your goodness will [excuse] my freedom”.

A later note shows that Newell received “13 weeks pay” at £1 19s, though there is no hint of whether her accompanying plea for a gown and fabric was answered. However, Newell was clearly confident that in writing she might meet with success. Indeed, hers was not an unusual nor unreasonable request. The accounts, bills, and vouchers generated by the day-to-day administration of the old poor law contain numerous descriptions of textiles purchased by parishes, as well as clothing provided to women, men, and children. Thus far, relatively little attention has been paid to the form and nature of these records; as Stephen Walker has argued, though parish accounts are a ‘staple’ of poor law studies, ‘they are generally perceived as the mere canvas on which more compelling dimensions of poverty are painted’. This paper will first explore records of accounting through the lens of textile provision, and then broaden out to consider wider questions of what it meant to account and be accounted for under the old English poor law. 

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Image: Punch Cartoon from 1843 criticizing the Poor Law, Wikicommons. 

Location: Zoom