The salaried assistant overseer of Kirkby Lonsdale, Stephen Garnett, is one of the few characters we’ve come across who appears in the historical literature before the start of the vouchers project. Historian James Steven Taylor identified him as a generator and hoarder of parish correspondence, when he (Taylor) wrote about the pauper letters which survive for the parish.
He was baptised in Yorkshire and had moved to Kirkby Lonsdale by the time of his marriage in 1787. Garnett made a living as a grocer, an occupation much surveyed by this project. He was also a methodical and careful man: having been entrusted with the task of managing poor-law correspondence for his home township, he went on to gather over 1200 letters and other documents between 1809 and 1836. As beneficiaries of his record-keeping, is it unkind of me to suggest he might have been obsessive?
The majority of items in the collection are letters from or about the paupers who were legally ‘settled’ in Kirkby Lonsdale but who lived elsewhere. Paupers requested poor relief by post, and tended to ‘threaten’ to return home. They might prove more expensive if on the doorstep than if relieved at a distance. Letters were addressed variously to Mr Garnett, Mr Garner or Mr Gardner.
Garnett was paid £10 a year for his services to the township, a modest salary, and an early example of a wage being given to a deputising overseer of the poor. He was described as a ‘Guardian’ of the poor, terminology used because Kirkby Lonsdale had formally adopted ‘Gilbert’s Act’ for the purposes of poor relief. It entered a union with sixteen other townships in the early nineteenth century and built a workhouse for use by all the locations in the union in 1811.
Most of the letters were written to Garnett, but a small selection of copy letters survive from him to other places. They show that he could write with some asperity, in protection of Kirkby Lonsdale’s finances. See for example his letter to a fellow overseer Mr John Scorah in Wakefield, 1825:
Kirkby Lonsdale Novr 1st 1825
Yours of the 30th Ult. is now before me Respecting a man of the name of Isaac Middlebrook it would have been well if he had given you more Information as respecting himself stating the grounds on which he claims a settlement here, I have examined the towns Books but can find no such name in them nor is any such person known here by the oldest Inhabitant
On this account I cannot authorise you to relief him on our account, but i wish to be rightly understood it is not our wish to put any obstackels [sic] in the way or cause any unnecessary trouble, if he can tell whear his parents lived or whith whoom he himself lived and by what means he gained a settlement it will be attended to, when we receive this Information we shall be able to tell wether it is in this Township or some other Township in this parish, thear being nine different Townships in this parish all maintaining their own poor
I am Sir yours Respectfully
The preservation of so much paper by one man is striking, if not entirely unique. We might suspect that a similarly full collection of letters (and vouchers) for the parish of Colwich in Staffordshire might well be owing to the incumbency of John Wetton in the post of assistant overseer there.
Sources: J.S. Taylor, ‘Voices in the crowd: The Kirkby Lonsdale township letters 1809-36’, T. Hitchcock, P. Sharpe and P. King (eds), Chronicling Poverty. The voices and strategies of the English poor 1640-1840 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997); www.workhouses.org.uk