Fragmentary Lives: Conference Report


The first conference organised under the auspices of ‘In Their Own Write’ was held at The National Archives, at Kew, on Saturday the 9th of June. The theme of the conference was  “the survival and interpretation of ego documents”, and it brought together a huge range of fascinating work on the subject. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term ‘ego document’, it refers to any written source that focuses on the personal lives and experiences of the writer. Ego documents are growing in importance in many areas of historical enquiry, particularly in the broad discipline of social history. Sources such personal letters, diaries, autobiographical writing, witness statements and petitions are now recognised as a vital and revealing way of addressing questions relating to the history of emotions, of domestic life, the boundaries between public and private lives, and the interactions between individuals (particularly those traditionally characterised as society’s powerless) and a range of public institutions and agencies. In particular, they often plug the gaps left by ‘official’ sources, and provide a voice for the previously unheard.

The conference was held in the new events suite at TNA which, though disturbingly high-tech for some of us older delegates, turned out to be incredibly comfortable and extremely user-friendly. Much of this was down to the organisational expertise and assistance of TNA’s permanent staff members and, in particular, huge thanks are due to Anna Sexton, TNA’s Head of Research, archivist Chris Day, and Lee Oliver, Head of Venue Management and Services, who took control of the technology and ensured that everything went smoothly: it was certainly a corrective to the Luddite tendency in many of us! Thanks are also due to Carol Beardmore and Geoff Monks from the University of Leicester for their help with registration.

The conference opens at TNA’s new Events Suite

The day’s proceedings were set in train by Anna Sexton, and kicked off with a brief explanation of ‘In Their Own Write’ by Steve King, the project PI. We then got down to the nitty gritty of the speakers’ papers. Session One took place under the broad heading of ‘The Boundaries of Public and Private’, and took in some fascinating papers looking at the topic from three very different angles. Helen Watt looked in detail at the scribal relationship between ordinary seamen during the French Wars through correspondence written by and for Richard Greenhalgh of Bury. Among many other interesting insights, Helen brought out rather wonderfully the way that Greenhalgh’s tone changed markedly (from loving affection to huffy indignance) when his parents did not reply quickly enough for his liking. Helen was followed by a quite different view of personal correspondence from Cam Sharpe Jones, a researcher at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Cam’s paper explored the development of Joseph Dalton Hooker’s life in letters. Hooker was a geographical botanist and explorer who went on to succeed his father as director of the Botanical Gardens in the 1860s. It was fascinating to see the way that his attitude towards his own epistolary identity changed over time, and how he came to accept – and even embrace – the fact that his letters shifted from being private documents to public property as he himself gained a growing public profile. The final paper in Session One was an introduction to a great new online resource, ‘Writing Lives’ (, by Emily Cumming and Helen Rogers of Liverpool John Moores University. The website is bringing together some of the many fragments of historical autobiography that have lain hidden in public and private collections until now, and Emily and Helen were keen to stress that they are eager for people to contact them and to get involved with their own families’ stories.

Session Two (“Lives Under the Information State”) began with a paper from ‘In Their Own Write’, drawing some early conclusions from our work with MH12. The main conclusion was that, following the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, paupers quickly adjusted to the new regime and were even able to use the growing bureaucratic apparatus in their own favour when complaining about local officials and institutional regimes. This was a theme that was taken up by Kim Price in his paper on pauper complainers and prison petitioners. Kim also drew the conclusion that, contrary to established beliefs about institutional life in England in the 19th century, paupers, prisoners and those who fought on their behalf were not entirely without influence; or, at least, they certainly had the opportunity to voice their grievances. Sandwiched between these two papers was Laura Mair’s more optimistic reading of letters from ragged school leavers, which clearly demonstrated the depth of affection and gratitude that many pupils felt towards their old alumnus. Intriguingly, the session as a whole stimulated a brief but very interesting discussion (prompted by a question from the floor) about historians’ attitudes towards our institutional past, and whether we should generally be more ‘optimistic’ in our analysis of interactions between paupers, prisoners, poor pupils and those who were charged with their care.

Steve King and the stitched workhouse letter of Lorina Bulwer

After the break, Session Three saw our speakers turn towards “Fragments of the Unusual”. This was an absolutely absorbing session in terms of the subjects of the papers, but also in the way that each of the three speakers presented their research in a fresh and innovative way. Steve King’s focus just a single letter, from Lorina Bulwer, an inmate in the Great Yarmouth workhouse: it just so happens that it was a letter that was stitched and embroidered on a colourful textile backing, and that it that ran to 4.3 metres (14 feet) long! Steve challenged the audience, not simply to see this as the work of a disturbed mind, but to see Lorina’s stitched letter in the wider context of workhouse complaint and protest more generally. Helen Rogers then took the floor again, and explored some of the fragments of biography and autobiography that have come down to us from a Victorian gaol, also in Great Yarmouth. Helen urged to us to look again at how we construct the lives of convicts and the poor, and the lessons we can learn from placing autobiographical writing alongside other sources. Finally, Emma Moreton from Coventry University demonstrated brilliantly some of the advantages of using corpus linguistics to analyse large bodies of lower class correspondence. Focusing on Irish migrant letters from 19th century America she showed that, through the conscientious use of tagging and data analysis, historians, linguists and others can gain huge insights into the shifting and contested meanings of basic epistolary terminology. Yet another chastening lesson for the Luddites!

Bridget Keown talks about WWI nurses’ reminiscences

The final session of the day focused on military lives reflected through the correspondence and reminiscences of active servicemen and women. Ruth Imeson Da Silva, from Nottinghamshire Archives, gave an incredibly affecting paper on the correspondence from two very different ‘Tommies’ during World War I. The affectionate, unassuming letters home from Private Charles Cobb were contrasted with the self-consciously heroic narratives constructed by the self-educated poet, William Streets, a miner who rose to the rank of Sergeant and whose work was published posthumously after the war. Despite their very different epistolic lives, the two men died tragically similar deaths on the Western Front, and those deaths are now memorialised in theirs’ and others’ wartime correspondence. Bridget Keown also looked at ego documents produced in response to the ‘Great War’, but her focus was on a hitherto neglected band of heroes: the nurses who looked after wounded soldiers behind the lines. Bridget brought out vividly, not only the stresses of nursing under the constant threat of death by attack, but also the terrible conditions that these women had to endure and the courage they brought to the role. She also demonstrated that serving nurses developed all the camaraderie and lasting friendships in adversity that the soldiers did, and it was really good to hear their story told at last through their own voices. Finally, Lorna Cahill Bannister returned to a theme explored earlier by Cam Sharpe Jones and Ruth Imeson Da Silva: that of the self-conscious creator of a personal narrative with an eye to posterity. Lorna demonstrated that, through the careful editing and abridgement of his diaries and letters, Major-General Sir Frederick Smith, who was in charge of veterinary services during the Second Boer War, not only sought to protect his own reputation, but settled a few personal and professional scores into the bargain. Once again, the boundaries between the private and the personal, in epistolary terms, was shown to be fluid and mutable.

All-in-all, it was a great day, showcasing some exciting new work in the fields of personal narratives, ego documents and epistolary relationships. The audience took a full part, coming up with some really interesting questions and contributing insightful observations. Our thanks go out to the speakers, and to everyone who came along and made it such a great success. Hopefully, it will herald the start of many new friendships and – who knows – maybe even some fruitful collaborative partnerships. We’re looking forward to the next one already!

The obligatory late break-out session…

Disability and Independence: the Long View

PIP outline

In March 2018 the Daily Mirror reported that Government reforms to disability benefits had fallen into disrepute. Some 69% of all people who appealed against decisions not to award (or not to award at the full rate) Personal Independence Payments in the prior tax year had won their cases. Reforms had been launched to great fanfare in 2013, with these so-called ‘PIP’ payments superseding the former Disability Living Allowance. The latter allowance, the Government argued, had itself fallen into disrepute, with the process allowing hundreds of thousands of people to fake disability or at least its extent.

From 2013 onwards almost 1 million people had their disabilities and hence their allowances reassessed. Newspapers across the political spectrum reported negatively on the new ability/disability tests, with those able to make even the most basic exercise type movements suddenly deemed fit to work. Over 500,000 people found that their previous benefits were downgraded or stopped completely. The cases of some high profile benefit cheats, who claimed severe disability and then were found on holiday, working or even, in one case, laying on strip shows while dressed as Batman, provided some populist cover for the reforms.

Here in 2018, it has become clear that the tests of ability to work have been both harsh and incompetently administered, leading to the Daily Mirror headline, itself duplicated across the print and e-media from March through to May. This places the Government in a thorny position. On many measures, Britain is the most disabled country in Europe and the world. Epidemics of obesity, chronic conditions associated with ageing, diabetes and alcohol dependence have created a public and personal health crisis. Yet even allowing for this, it seems intrinsically unlikely that somewhere between 1 and 2 million people are genuinely too disabled to work. What, then, can politicians ‘do’ about disability?

For us at ITOW, the answer might be to look at the past to shape policies for the future. Many of the modern dilemmas of disability policy are familiar to us all: how to deal with the rapidly increasing numbers of those with the physical and mental impairments that emerge out of extreme old age; whether and how to define those with physical impairments as ‘able’ and thus to oblige them to find work; how to deal with funding shortfalls in the NHS as it struggles and fails to meet the spiralling costs of intervening in areas of mental and physical impairment; and questions over what the proper balance between state, voluntary and private actions should be on these and other issues. Modern policy-makers, fund-holders, charities and even disability pressure groups construct these questions as essentially ‘new’. In fact, they are not.

The modern narrative that those with mental, physical and sensory impairments must be enabled (and sometimes forced) into work as both a good in itself, and as a way to reduce the poverty that many people with impairments face, was part of the welfare wallpaper in the nineteenth-century. New tests for disability of the sort referred to above focus on where someone sits on a spectrum of ability rather than disability. This way of thinking about impairments was central to the relationship between ordinary people and the local state in the nineteenth-century. Indeed, applicants and officials shared a common language of degrees of ability. Here for instance is Sarah Giles. She wrote to the central poor law authorities from Northampton on 18 February 1837 and asked that they ‘stand as my last frend in this wurld’.

Giles explained that ‘I have not been able to walk since my accident Sir and have to be pushed around when I can’. But, she noted:

I am not nor dersabled as you might call it but I derpend on selling my little thyngs on the street and this gets me most of my part and with the kind help of my naybours and the indugunce of my landlord and no littel help from my Brother I can make do but now I have been ill these last wintur munths and I have not bin abul to git about in the snow and can not use the crutches or the wheel in these times and so I am beehind with all ands so will you please kindly show as a frend for just a month as I am less able that I may settle some littel deps and keep my head up here that I may once again do what I can without the asisternce of the Board here.

Giles had been paralysed in a fall down a disused quarry pit as a girl and we have records of the race to save her life at that time. As an adult of 34 years of age, she now applied for help from the Northampton Poor Law Union, clearly not understanding that she ought to have applied to the local relieving officer rather than the central authorities. Yet this accidental letter is important. Giles assumed that there was a shared understanding that her paralysis did not equate to disability. When the weather was good, and she was healthy, Giles could wheel or crutch herself around selling items from a basket on the street, and maintain independence with the help of friends and neighbours. She had, in other words, a degree of ability. Most of those with sensory or physical disability in the nineteenth-century constructed themselves in a similar way.

Our failure to build on historical knowledge like this is important. In the nineteenth century, keeping those with impairments out of full and long-term dependency on the State required a dynamic local partnership between the person with the impairment, their variously constructed communities and the welfare system. Officials were often called upon to act quickly and to use welfare payments flexibly in order to support people as they traversed a spectrum of ability and inability. They almost always acted in partnership with families and neighbours, and they carefully calibrated their actions in relation to the current state of ability of claimants. Where those with impairments worked and earned wages, this was not a bar to rapid or significant action by the welfare authorities. Only when someone had confined themselves to bed and thus withdrawn from the public world did the language of disability start to creep in.

Greenwich pensioner
Disabled Greenwich Pensioners (© Wellcome Image Library)

In this nineteenth-century context, where legal rights to receive relief as opposed to a legal right to apply for it were few, most of those with mental, physical or sensory impairments seem to have retained a moral right to favourable consideration. Local officials familiar with the stories of those who claimed welfare, could and did find it virtually impossible to erase moral rights even if they wanted to in the first place. The legal rights that can so easily be watered down in the face of budget constraints are, arguably, no substitute for the loss of such moral rights over time.

Now, as the threat of a new and substantial tide of impairment looms large, and reforms to disability welfare policy have (as the Daily Mirror reminds us so forcibly) failed , history has very much to teach us.

Further reading:

  • Borsay, A., Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2005).
  • Croley, L., ‘A working distinction: Vagrants, beggars, and the labouring poor in mid-Victorian England’, Prose Studies, 18 (1995), 74-104.
  • Gulliver, M., ‘Insulting Jean Massieu: Debating Representational Control of Deaf People in Mid-Nineteenth Century Britain’, Social and Cultural History, 14 (2017), 321-42
  • King, S., ‘Constructing the disabled child in England, 1800-1860’, Family and Community History, 18 (2015), 56-89.
  • Phillips, G., The Blind in British Society: Charity, State and Community, c.1780-1930 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004).

Life and Death in (and out) of the Victorian Workhouse

Copyright Ben Cavanna
Detail from a portrait of ‘Old Scotty’, a homeless beggar in London, by John Thomson, 1877 (©

This week,  Conservative MP and former soldier Adam Holloway got into hot water when he suggested during a Parliamentary debate on homelessness that “sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise when I was in the Army”.  Unsurprisingly, his comments were seized on in parts of the media, and he was widely castigated for his lack of sympathy and understanding. He hardly helped himself by going on to suggest that London homelessness was being driven by East European migrants, and that “begging is part of the problem”, because “you can…make quite a lot of money from begging on the streets of London” . On the face of it, his intervention seems to fit perfectly with official attitudes to homelessness going back to the Vagrancy Act of 1824 – an Act that, perhaps surprisingly, is still in force, and which states that:

every person wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or waggon, not having any visible means of subsistence and not giving a good account of himself or herself,

is liable to prosecution as a “rogue” or “vagabond”.

Yet, as Holloway himself acknowledged elsewhere in his speech, the problem of rough sleeping and rough sleepers has never been straightforward, and it isn’t one that responds well to simplistic solutions, whether martial or well-meaning (though the demonization of specific groups – rogues, vagabonds and foreigners, for example – is unlikely to help, either). We at ITOW were reminded of this when we came across the case of John Moss, which appears in the Axminster poor law correspondence for 1848 (MH12/2099).

Moss was a well-known figure around Axminster in the 1840s. He was described as “rather eccentric…but a quiet man”. He supported himself by begging, and roamed widely in the surrounding countryside; but he had no fixed address, and often found himself in the workhouse – once for a full twelve months. Although he seems to have been tolerated locally, he did fall foul of the Vagrancy Act now and then, and he was committed to the local gaol on more than one occasion. Sadly, his luck ran out in the winter of 1848, when he was found dead in an abandoned ‘tallet’ (a Devon term for a hayloft) near the village of Gittisham: according to the local paper he had lain there undiscovered for a more than a week.

At the inquest, it was reported that all he had on him was “a knife, clothes brush, a clean neckerchief, one shilling in silver and fifteen pence in coppers”. He also had a letter dated Ottery St. Mary, 23 January 1842 (six years before his death) and signed by “Elizabeth Moss”, and it was by this means that he was eventually identified. Shortly before he died, he had been given money and food by the Rev. J.T. Marker and others locally. It seems it was simple exposure to the cold that killed him: there were no signs of violence. He was “aged about 50”.

It would be easy to view this eccentric loner, in and out of the workhouse, as a victim of the system, with no fixed address and no proper support, begging for his bread and jailed for his pains. But scratch the surface of John Moss’s sad tale, and a slightly more complicated story comes into view; for Moss, it appears, was not entirely without resources to call on, despite his apparently down-at-heel existence. His father had been a local farmer, renting a property at £120 a year, and his brother was reportedly a surveyor “in tolerable circumstances”. He was described by Poor Law officials as a man “of respectable connexions”.

We have already seen that Moss used the Workhouse as a refuge when life outside  became too much – or, perhaps, when he wanted to avoid arrest for vagrancy. Who knows what drove him to choose the life he did? Were his ‘eccentricities’ more profound than that innocent term suggests? Was it a family rift that sent him on the tramp, or perhaps an emotional crisis? (What of that letter from the mysterious Elizabeth, the only intimate possession he had on him when he died?) Or had he simply had enough of institutional life? We know enough about workhouse tramp wards (Orwell’s ‘Spikes’) to suggest that any life outside might just be preferable.

Whatever the reasons behind John Moss’s mendicant lifestyle, it does seem to illustrate the central point made by MP Adam Holloway in his Commons speech this week – a point that was largely lost in the furore about his less subtle pronouncements. “The overriding majority” of those who were ‘genuinely’ homeless, he said:

[have] some sort of mental health issue, which is compounded by living on the streets and by drug and alcohol addiction…we should start treating [homeless]people as individuals rather than lumping them all together and suggesting that everyone has the same need.

John Moss was one such individual, and though his needs were periodically met in the workhouse and by the community at large, sadly this was not enough to save him in the end.

‘Beggars leaving Town for their Work-house’, From J.T. Smith, Vagabondiana (1817)



Women, the New Poor Law and the Long Road to Emancipation

Baroness Burdett-Coutts, by York & Son, after Francis Henry Hart, for Elliott & Fry (1882) © National Portrait Gallery Collection, London, Reproduced under Creative Commons License 3.0

This week’s blog is a little off the beaten track for In Their Own Write. Rather than the lives of paupers, it looks at the issue of women’s fight for emancipation and equal treatment by the state and under the law. No doubt by now everyone is aware that this year marks the centenary of the Representation of the People Act (1918), which, for the first time enfranchised women over the age of 30 and paved the way for all women to get the vote. The Act was the culmination of more than 50 years of committed protest and agitation by Suffragettes and Suffragists, often involving hardship and considerable danger. But in this special anniversary year, and with the growing #MeToo movement demonstrating just how much further women have to go to achieve real parity, it is worth reflecting that disenfranchisement is just one of the many personal and legal obstacles faced by women throughout history.

In particular, as Steven King has demonstrated elsewhere, despite their hard work on behalf of the poor behind the scenes in the nineteenth-century, it took a very long time for women to gain the right to actually hold public office under the New Poor Law (King, 2006). Other than the usual property qualifications, there was nothing in the original legislation which officially disbarred women from standing as Guardians in their local unions. But the question of whether or not this could actually happen in practice was hotly debated, and the official view was summarised by the Poor Law Commission in 1850 when it stated that: “The objections to the appointment of a female [guardian]…are so manifest, that the board cannot readily suppose that the question will become one of practical importance in the administration of the Poor laws” (Brown, 1875: 240). Yet, despite this trenchant view, it only took a few years for a serious challenge to be mounted.

In 1869, the name of Miss (later Baroness) Angela Burdett-Coutts appeared on the nomination forms for the West Ward of the Bethnal Green Union. As far as we know, this was the first time it had happened under the New Poor Law. Unsurprisingly, the union moved swiftly into action, and alongside her name on the voting forms the brief note was added: “It is the opinion of the [Union] Clerk that Miss Angela Burdett Coutts is not qualified to serve as Guardian, being a female” (TNA MH12/6859).

Handbill 2 - detail
Baroness Burdett Coutts’ entry on the voting form for Guardians of the Poor, Bethnal Green West Ward, 1869 (MH12/6859, reproduced courtesy of The National Archives)

Yet despite the official view, Burdett Coutts polled fifth out of nine candidates; and as such she had been elected by the ratepayers to serve as the first woman guardian of the poor in Britain: a sensation was brewing, history was about to be made!

Unfortunately, despite the bold move of the ratepayers in electing her, they never got the chance to fight for Burdett Coutts’ right to actually sit on the Board. It transpired after the election that she had been nominated without her knowledge, and in the event she never actually served. Those who have mentioned this footnote in the history of women’s emancipation in their work have accepted the official view that she refused to take her place precisely because she had not been consulted over her nomination. But the correspondence of the Poor Law Board (TNA MH12/6859&6860) makes it clear that she was kept fully informed of the situation following her election, and there are indications that she was willing to serve as a Guardian had the local Ratepayers’ Association (which had nominated her in the first place) agreed to it.

Sadly, the Poor Law Board made it clear that, had she attempted to do so, this would have prompted a costly law suit which the ratepayers were unable (and, presumably, the fabulously wealthy Baroness was unwilling) to enter into. As Robert Atkins, the secretary of the Ratepayers’ Association, wrote to the Board: “Law is proverbially a very expensive article; and Bethnal Green is proverbially very poor. It seems almost like a mockery to refer the ratepayers of Bethnal Green to a court of Law; where justice is kept in deep wells, and none but those with long purses may draw therefrom” (TNA MH12/6860).

In the event, it took another six years before a female Guardian of the Poor would take her place in Britain. Her name was Martha Merrington, and she served on the Board of the Kensington Union (Richardson, 2013: 97). The name of Baroness Burdett Coutts’ did not, after all, go down in history as one of the key emancipators of her age. But amidst all the celebrations of what has been achieved since women first gained the vote 100 years ago, and all the soul-searching over how far we have really come in the struggle for parity, perhaps we should spare a thought for an unheralded, though slightly reluctant, servant in the fight for female emancipation: Angela Georgina, 1st Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

Further Reading

  • W.A. Brown (ed.), The Poor Law Magazine and Parochial Journal (Edinburgh, 1875), 240
  • S.A. King, Women, Welfare and Local Politics, 1880-1920: ‘We Might be Trusted’ (Brighton, 2006)
  • S. Richardson, The Political Worlds of Women: Gender and Politics in Nineteenth Century Britain (New York/Oxford, 2013)


ITOW Conference, 9 June 2018

New Poor Law Correspondence, 1908

Our first major public event will be held at The National Archives in Kew, London, on 9 June 2018:

‘Fragmentary Lives: The Survival and Interpretation of Historic Ego Documents, 1790-1940’

The conference will look at a variety of sources that focus on the personal life and experiences of the writer, such as letters and autobiographies.

Paul Carter (The National Archives) explained that ‘The Fragmentary Lives conference seeks to explore the way that the perspectives drawn from these ego documents are reshaping the future research agenda‘.

Papers will cover topics such as

  • Agency in pauper letters and petitions
  • Concepts of self and agency in autobiographies
  • Scribes and scribal relationships
  • The material culture of letters and writing
  • Agency and the overlap of oral and literate cultures

See further details and information. Although the call for papers has now closed, everyone is welcome to come along and take part. Attendance is free, but you will need to register using the link above.