Something to do with everything

Well, here we are at the end of my eighth week on the Past Caring project. It has been a busy time, with my first few weeks spent meeting lots of new people, getting to grips with project goals, and getting my head around a new set of collections!

Over the last few weeks I have also been deeply immersed in the York Poor Law Union and Workhouse collections, which form the first tranche of records in the project. I am now more or less conversant with the intricate administrative workings of York’s Board of Guardians (who headed the Union), and their underlings, such as the Relieving Officers and District Medical Officers.  Researching these records has led me to the realisation that, like Dickens’ Circumlocution Office, the Poor Law in the nineteenth century really had ‘something to do with everything’.  Infectious diseases, schooling, rate collection, mental health, sanitation, and welfare – the Guardians’ rather extensive remit touched on most people’s lives in one way or another.

If you have been following me on Twitter you will know that I have been carrying out a detailed survey of the Poor Law collections over the last fortnight or so. And given this survey is now complete, I thought I would share some of my findings in a little more detail.

Having worked in a number of local authority archives, the first and most striking impression I had of the York Union records is their sheer variety. And this impression has only been confirmed by the survey. Vaccination records, title deeds, registers, minutes, indoor relief, outdoor relief, staffing records, correspondence, statistics, rate books, medical relief books, invoices – the list goes on. And the possibilities for using various combinations of these records to answer all sorts of research questions seem virtually endless at the moment.

Another feature of the York Poor Law records, and one that is probably common to many Poor Law Union collections, is the extent to which these records relate to and complement collections held at other institutions. To get the most out of these records many researchers will need to visit other archives in order to trace the administrative flow of information between, for example, the Union and the various hospitals in the region, or the Union and the central Poor Law Board. Like assembling a jigsaw puzzle that has been dispersed, information from various sources can then be put together to provide a fuller and more nuanced picture of the past.

Certain records in this collection are also striking for the snatches of often disturbing details they provide on individual lives. One series of records, known as Application and Report Books, records the circumstances of paupers receiving ‘outrelief,’ which could be any form of relief, such as money, food, clothing or medicine, granted to poor people outside the workhouse. Reasons for applying for relief were many and varied, ranging from ‘lunacy’ to ‘disabled from childbirth’, or simply ‘want of work’.  In the image below you can see an entry from 1838 in which the 13-year-old Bradley Hawkswell, illegitimate, deserted by his mother and with his putative father recently dead, applied for relief as he has been ‘partially disabled from a blow on the head’. This is more than just a run of extraordinary bad luck, but the setting out of a string of conditions that probably condemned Hawskwell, through no fault of his own, to a life of poverty and dependence.

1838_application-and-report-book-l

1838 Application and Report Book

I’m afraid however that my survey of the poor law records has also confirmed the poor physical state of some of the records. Many of the volumes in the collection are suffering from an advanced case of red rot, a form of deterioration that affects vegetable-tanned leather, and which causes the covers to disintegrate into a fine powder. When working with the collection for any length of time I have to get fully kitted out in protective clothing, including gloves, coat and face mask (a somewhat alarming vision for any visitors to the archive!). Help will soon be at hand however when we are joined next year by a project conservator whose job it will be to halt the advance of the red rot, thereby ensuring that future researchers will be able to use these records without getting covered in a fine cloud of red dust!

For more images of the collection and updates on my progress don’t forget to follow our project Twitter account.

Thanks for reading, Julie-Ann

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