The Project

Very little is known about the midwives, tailors, workhouse mistresses, butchers and others who serviced the parish, and this research sets out to redress this omission by drawing on a class of little-used sources and on the collective support of volunteer researchers.

Overseers’ vouchers are the ephemeral, handwritten papers typically generated whenever the parish incurred a debt. These vouchers survive in very large numbers for selected parishes, such as the 2063 for Colwich in Staffordshire. They provide information about the identities of those who were paid for goods and services for the poor, and also reveal the scale of income to be gained by working on behalf of the parish. Additionally, these vouchers expose the networks of traders who benefited from the business – and those who did not – and the longevity of these relationships. The social and economic bonds forged between the poor and the non-poor are fully reflected at the most granular scale in these everyday sources.

The presence of vouchers in parish collections has long been acknowledged, but their utility for historical research has been wholly disregarded owing to the significant technical challenges of using them. Where they survive vouchers can be tightly or chaotically folded, diverse in format, and of variable legibility, offering uncertain returns for the lone investigator. As a pilot study in Staffordshire has demonstrated, however, volunteer researchers working alongside academics have the scope to unpack vouchers both physically and intellectually. Collaboration with volunteers offers historians of the Old Poor Law a new opportunity to integrate the content of vouchers into histories of the poor and to evidence more fully the lives of ordinary people beyond poverty. This work will generate partial biographies of tradespeople, administrators, paupers, and workers who are not represented elsewhere in the historical record in consistent ways.

The biographies will be written by volunteers and project staff. These life-stories will not always mimic the complete record required for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, since the nature of the sources will not permit cradle-to-grave certainty about people’s life courses. What they will do is draw on vouchers and available genealogical material for the same locations to outline those parts of lives that are reliably visible from these recalcitrant parish sources. This work will greatly expand the number of biographies available for the unassuming eighteenth and early nineteenth-century man or woman. It will develop the methodology by placing vouchers at the heart of the exercise, and incorporate the editorial choices and writing of volunteer researchers. At completion of the funded project the collected dictionaries will contain a minimum of 1000 lives from across the counties of Cumbria, Staffordshire and East Sussex; and the project dataset will include at least 250,000 lines of data, reflecting the goods and services provided by local parishes.

What will the project do?

Parishes generated tens of thousands of receipts, or ‘vouchers’ listing the goods provided to the poor. Incidentally, these vouchers contain evidence of the entrepreneurial or employment opportunities to the people who supplied and administered the system. Individuals and businesses crop up again and again in these scraps of paper, providing dates when people were working, information about the range of goods they stocked, and clues about how significant the parish was for their solvency. Our ambition is to collect information from over one hundred thousand vouchers, and use this to write over a thousand biographies of both the people who were in receipt of assistance and those involved in delivering goods and services to them.

How will the project work?

Archival volunteers are essential to the success of this work. By unfolding, reading and entering the contents of these vouchers into a database, volunteers generate new insights into the everyday lives of local people. There will be opportunities for volunteers to write some of the biographies by using their family or local history expertise to fill out the details of someone’s life and circumstances.