Skip to content

Response to Review no. 109

In Leonard Schwarz’s insightful and stimulating review he has managed to do something which the editors of this volume of settlement and bastardy examinations largely failed to achieve, and for the most part, in their temerity, did not even attempt. He has placed a series of varied and individual examinations of diverse lives, into a broader economic and social context, highlighting many of the current debates which inform our understanding of the lives of the poor in eighteenth-century London. Dr Schwarz is an expert in this field and in the process of reviewing our collection of ‘pauper scripts’ has significantly increased our understanding. Indeed, we can have no complaint about his review, and are deeply grateful for his measured account.

At the same time we would like to take this opportunity of explaining in a more general way why the material presented in this volume is worthy of attention. The poorer residents of eighteenth-century London were caught in a uniquely comprehensive administrative machine. In workhouse registers, and legal records, in tax books, and the voting records of Westminster, in published directories, and pension lists and in the voluminous archives of the numerous independent charitable institutions of the capital, the lives and experiences of working people were recorded as they were being manipulated. As a result, still tantalisingly out of reach, there is the possibility of actually reconstructing the lives of a majority of the residents of London. The strategies and cultures, the diverse communities and social tensions which characterised this most vital of cities is there to be recovered. The sources upon which this project can be based are, of course, difficult ones. And anyone who has followed the frequently rancorous debate between Norma Landau and Keith Snell about the meaning of settlement examinations, will have been alerted to the problems of context and analysis associated with even this most apparently accessible of sources. But these difficulties do not negate the compelling content of the diverse records available. Many of the sources needed for the larger intellectual project to which this volume is a contribution, are already available in an electronic form – the Westminster Historical Database is perhaps the best example – while much more besides is currently in the process of preparation for publication on-line. By publishing this sample of these very readable ‘pauper scripts’ in a traditional book form we hope to pique a wider interest in the project of reconstructing the lives and beliefs and behaviour of the population of London. In due course, and there are many decades of hard work yet to be done, a more humane and comprehensive and relevant history will be created, which gives full credence to the decisions and authority of each member of society, however apparently powerless. In reconstructing the details of individual lives it will be possible to create a new and more relevant ‘history from below’. In a sense, this volume needs no further justification. But, our desire to encourage this broader project is also part of our reading of the current state of the historical scholarship as a whole.

One characteristic of history, and eighteenth-century history in particular, over the past twenty years, has been the extent to which the locus of interest has moved from the analysis of measurable variables to the more problematic engagement with discursive constructions. The regrettable decline of many economic history departments bears eloquent witness to the intellectual shift from counting to discourse.

The majority of eighteenth-century historians are now more concerned with coffee houses than food supplies and the rhetoric of politeness rather than the realities of social power. This transformation has been part of a necessary re-assessment of the nature of historical methodology, and of historical knowledge itself. But in the process of concentrating on language we have tended to allow ourselves to give undue weight to the experiences of the literate. To this extent, the shift to a more nuanced understanding of the ways in which we understand language, has led historians to give too much attention to the lives and experiences of the rich at the expense of the poor; to the most powerful users of language. Our perhaps puny attempt to publicise the pauper scripts included in this volume (and by extension the at least 112,000 similar documents which survive for the parishes of eighteenth-century London) is aimed at suggesting that the analysis of linguistic strategies and discursive constructions can give us access to the realities of poverty; that we need not allow our current concentration on language to exclude a consideration of the majority population. By publishing these most ‘narrative’ of pauper scripts, our hope is that a more comprehensive and subtle account of our past can be created, than would be possible from the grand narratives and oh so literate scribblings of commentators for whom parish pensioners and bastard bearers were nasty facts of life, rather than real people.

This is, of course, a ridiculously grand object for a small source book, especially as the publications of the London Record Society are regrettably seldom found on the ‘must read’ lists of our more theoretically inclined colleagues. But, if instead, we simply introduce undergraduates and a narrower band of the broader profession to a few individuals – individuals whose lives we can recover – we will have achieved a significant part of the intention with which we set out on this project in the first place. We hope that the existence of this volume will be grist to the mill of the many historians already working to understand the lives of eighteenth-century Londoners, but more than this, that it will allow a wider audience access to the fears and frustrations, failed marriages and broken businesses, which the women and men of eighteenth-century London struggled to understand and accommodate.