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Pauper Inventories and the Material Lives of the Poor in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

  • Peter King

Abstract

A substantial history of the physical environments in which the eighteenth-century poor lived has yet to be written. The material world of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has recently become an increasing focus for the work of historians.1 The growing demand for products and services, and changing patterns of consumer behaviour, have each received fairly comprehensive treatment. The extent to which these new patterns of consumption and demand extended from the middling sort to the labouring poor has, however, been largely ignored.2 While Malcolmson argues in Life and Labour in England 1700–1780 that the ‘expanding culture of consumerism … was almost entirely inaccessible to the great majority of the nation’s population’,3 the relevant parts of his book focus on the ways the poor put together a living rather than on an analysis of their material possessions. The vibrant plebeian culture of the eighteenth century — its recreations, customary practices and popular protests — has been subjected to detailed scrutiny by social historians,4 while the wide-ranging standard-of-living debate has resulted in the detailed exploitation of the limited data available on wages, prices and other indicators of changing real wage levels and overall consumption patterns.5 However, neither of these approaches has focused on the household items and everyday material world of the poor.

Keywords

Eighteenth Century Consumer Behaviour Material World Household Good Material Life 
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Notes

  1. 1.
    J. Brewer and R. Porter (eds), Consumption and the World of Goods (1993);Google Scholar
  2. L. Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture in Britain 1660–1760 (1988);Google Scholar
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  4. 2.
    N. McKendrick, J. Brewer and J. Plumb, The Birth of a Consumer Society. The Commercialisation of Eighteenth-Century England (1982), esp. Chap. 1.Google Scholar
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    R. Malcolmson, Life and Labour in England 1700–1780 (1981).Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Much of this work was inspired by E.P. Thompson’s influence, some of which reached its final printed form in E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common (1991). For a discussion see P. King, ‘Edward Thompson’s Contribution to Eighteenth-Century Studies. The Patrician-Plebeian Model Re-examined’, Social History 21 (1996), 215–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For brief recent observations on the vast historiography of the standard-of-living debate see P. Hudson, The Industrial Revolution (1992), pp.29–32.Google Scholar
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    F. Eden, The State of the Poor (3 vols, 1797); D. Davies, The Case of Labourers in Husbandry (1795). See also T. Sokoll, ‘Early Attempts at Accounting the Unaccountable: Davies’ and Eden’s Budgets of Agricultural Labouring Families in Late Eighteenth-Century England’ in T. Pierenkemper (ed.), Zur Okonomik des Private-Haushalts (Frankfurt, 1991).Google Scholar
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    T. Sokoll, Household and Family among the Poor. The Case of Two Essex Communities in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries (Bochum, 1993).Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    This was the practice in the Hertfordshire village of Little Gaddesden where ‘old people who had no one to care for them were given shelter in the town houses; and when they had thus become the bedes folk of the parish they made a “will and act of surrender”, leaving all their goods to the overseers. At their death their belongings were sold for the relief of the poor rate.’ V. Bell, To Meet Mr Ellis, Little Gaddesden in the Eighteenth Century (1956).Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    R. Robinson, John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings (Oxford, 1986), p.115;Google Scholar
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  16. 18.
    J. Clare, The Parish. A Satire (1985), pp.62–3 — a work written in the early 1820s.Google Scholar
  17. 23.
    For critical reviews of probate inventories and their problems see, for example, Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour; D. Vaisey, Probate Inventories of Lichfield and District 1568–1680 (Staffordshire Record Society, 1969);Google Scholar
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  19. M. Spufford, ‘The Limitations of the Probate Inventory’ in J. Chartres and D. Hey (eds), English Rural Society 1500–1800 (Cambridge, 1990), pp.139–74 is an excellent recent critique. For a brief discussion of pauper inventories see B. Cornford, ‘Inventories of the Poor’, Norfolk Archaeology 25, 118–25 and Anon., ‘Inventories of Poor People’s Furniture at Clyffe Pypard 1767’, The Wiltshire Magazine 48 (1938), 193–6.Google Scholar
  20. 45.
    The ‘mid-Essex’ sample has been collected by putting together all the inventories in which any detail on household goods is provided from two sources — the Writtle-with-Roxwell inventories, which are available in print in F. Steer, Farm and Cottage Inventories of Mid Essex 1634–1749 (Chelmsford, 1950), and the inventories of the Good Easter Peculiar — E/R/O/, D/APgWI. All pre-1658 inventories have been ignored, as have all those where occupation could not be established. The five inventories of ‘Gentlemen’ have also been left out of the sample.Google Scholar
  21. 50.
    These 41 do not necessarily constitute all the Essex pauper inventories with room information that can be traced into other records. Some of these inventories occur in parishes with very poor records, according to the E/R/O’s guide — F. Emmison (ed.), Catalogue of Essex Parish Records 1240–1894, (Chelmsford, 2nd edn, 1966).Google Scholar
  22. 53.
    On the powers given by the 1671 Act allowing guns to be seized, see P. Munsche, Gentlemen and Poachers. The English Game Laws 1681–1831 (Cambridge, 1981), p.12.Google Scholar
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    Malcolmson, Life, p.146; A. Brown, Essex at Work 1700–1815 (Chelmsford, 1969) pp.132–4.Google Scholar
  24. 56.
    Three parishes with rich collections are Weathersfield, Theydon Garnon and Hatfield Broad Oak. (See note 22.) For Hatfield Broad Oak see E/R/O, Q/RPL 431, 441, 450; Victorian History of the Counties of England: Essex vol. 8, pp.158–86. Hatfield Broad Oak also contained a decaying minor market town. For the importance of customary rights to the poor, see K. Snell, Annals of the Labouring Poor (Cambridge, 1985), pp.138–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 59.
    P. Slack, Poverty and Policy in Tudor and Stuart England (1988), p.7; E/R/O/, D/P 4/ 18/8 and Q/RPL 431.Google Scholar
  26. 61.
    Another dimension not investigated here but worthy of further consideration is the position of widows. Were their pauper inventories very different from those of male householders and, if so, in what ways? For the household context, see T. Sokoll, ‘The Household Position of Elderly Widows in Poverty’ in J. Henderson and R. Wall (eds), Poor Women and Children in the European Past (1994), pp.207–24.Google Scholar
  27. 62.
    Some of these issues are addressed for one area of expenditure in J. Styles, ‘Clothing the North: The Supply of Non-elite Clothing in the Eighteenth-century North of England’, Textile History 25 (1994), 139–66. Regional variations are discussed for better-off groups in Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour. If methods of quantification can be refined and more knowledge gained about where goods were obtained from, pauper inventories may also be useful in refining the debate about the growth of the home market. See, for example,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. D. Eversley, ‘The Home Market and Economic Growth in England 1750–1780’ in E. Jones and G. Mingay (eds), Land, Labour and Population in the Industrial Revolution (1967).Google Scholar
  29. 63.
    For an important article on an earlier period stressing the possibility that levels of poverty have been exaggerated, see J. Walter, ‘The Social Economy of Dearth in Early Modern England’ in J. Walter and R. Schofield (eds), Famine, Disease and the Social Order in Early Modern Society (Cambridge, 1989).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Tim Hitchcock, Peter King and Pamela Sharpe 1997

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  • Peter King

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