On Saturday 12 November academic researchers, archivists, project volunteers, local historians and members of the public gathered at Stafford Record Office for a study day on the Poor Law. The study day was designed to reflect on the work done so far on a collaborative project between Staffordshire Archives and Heritage and Keele University. Archivists from Stafford Record Office, researchers from Keele and a group of volunteers are in the process of cataloguing a vast collection of parish receipts and bills, typically called overseers’ vouchers, in order to put together the life stories of ordinary people whose lives were touched by the Old Poor Law.
Matthew Blake, Participation and Engagement Officer at Staffordshire Archives and Heritage, introduces the Study Day to a full audience at Stafford Record Office.
Dr Alannah Tomkins, Reader in History at Keele, opened the day by summarising the project, its findings so far and its future goals. Ultimately, this research hopes to diversify our understandings of the Poor Law and people’s experiences of it, challenging the notion that life in the workhouse was always ‘hell with the lid off.’ The overseers’ vouchers reveal a wealth of information that is often absent from existing histories and other sources. They can tell us about the business networks and processes at work in each parish, about the ebb and flow of parish work and life and they can give fascinating snippets of life stories of the many people and traders involved in these transactions. The next presentation from Dr Pete Collinge, research fellow in History at Keele, reflected more on the nature of these sources. Using examples from his doctoral work on Female Enterprise in Georgian Derbyshire, he talked about the methods that we might use to construct life stories from such fragmentary evidence. Later in the day both Dr Tomkins and Dr Collinge brought the project to life by revealing what the vouchers analysed so far reveal about local businesses in Uttoxeter. We ended the day with a paper on the new Poor Law, which was introduced in 1834. Nicola Blacklaws, a PhD student at the University of Leicester, placed the day’s discussions in this broader context and gave us an insight into a little researched area of history with her paper on the Poor Law in Staffordshire in the twentieth century.
The study day was fascinating showcase of some of the insights that will be gained from this project, a project that will clearly have significant implications for the historiography of the Poor Law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But this study day was far more than an academic exercise. All those involved, both archivists and researchers, emphasised the important roles that volunteers play throughout this project, particularly given the sheer amount of vouchers waiting to be analysed. Volunteer and public input was also crucial to the study day. Members of the audience were central in the day’s discussion and they had many valuable suggestions about the project’s conclusions so far and its future direction. If you are interested in finding out more about the biographies that the team have put together, or in keeping up to date with its future plans, have a look at their blog here.