An Apprentice and an Anonymous Letter: Eli Wood

There is a common assumption, probably derived from Dicken’s Oliver Twist who was taken from the workhouse to be indentured to an undertaker, that by definition parish apprentices were orphans. This was not always the case. In early 1829 Eli Wood of Uttoxeter, aged about 16, was bound to W. Appleby of St Mary’s parish Stafford. Uttoxeter’s parish overseers received a bill for the drawing up of the apprentice order, the indenture and the associated paperwork. Nothing more is heard of Eli Wood until the Uttoxeter overseer received an anonymous letter, dated 3 March 1830. The informant, who clearly knew something of the family and its history, told the overseer that Eli had had a work-related accident. He had been thrown off his master’s horse and although hurt, the injury was considered to be slight.

In the letter, written in a semi-literate hand, possibly in an attempt to disguise the author’s identity, we are told that Wood is apprenticed to a Mr R. Thorpe, a last-maker, not the Appleby named in the bill for the justice’s clerk’s fees. It could be that in the intervening year Appleby had died and that Wood’s apprenticeship had been transferred to Thorpe.

The letter continues: Wood’s parents had been in Stafford to see another son ‘woe I am informed is in gale’, and called upon Eli. Seeing Eli unwell they decided to take him back to their house in Pinfold Lane, Uttoxeter. The letter writer was of the opinion that any application made by Eli Wood or his parents to seek financial assistance from the Uttoxeter overseers as a result of the accident should be resisted. Signed ‘Well Wisher’, the clue as to the possible identity of the anonymous writer comes towards the end of the letter; Wood’s master had a great deal of work that needed to be completed and was in need of him. It seems likely that ‘Well Wisher’ was R. Thorpe who having invested time and money in Wood’s apprenticeship, now wanted to ensure that the errant Wood (who had effectively absconded) returned  to his duties. So why be anonymous? Probably it was an attempt to ensure that upon Wood’s return, the master/apprentice relationship could be repaired.


Workhouse treats?

The Uttoxeter workhouse was opened around 1789 and contained at least 17 rooms including a kitchen, dining room, and lying-in room for women delivering babies. In inventories of workhouse furnishings of 1794-5 there were at least 27 bedsteads suggesting that the total population might have fallen somewhere between 30 and 50 people.  Bed-sharing was quite commonplace in lots of eighteenth-century institutions including boarding schools.

The overseers’ vouchers for the 1820s and 1830s evidence the range of food bought for workhouse inmates and while the accounts are dominated by beef and wheat, grocery bills reveal a more varied set of purchases.

overseers grocery bill

This bill from December 1830 paid to Bagshaw & Sons itemises payments for tea and treacle, as well are nominal amounts for flavoursome additions to the diet such as nutmeg and raisins.  Were these just the ingrediants of the workhouse master’s Christmas pudding, or could the workhouse poor look forward to a seasonal treat?  Finds of other grocery bills may tell…

Before Oliver! The Parish Workhouse

Parish workhouses had their origins in the poor laws of 1598-1601, which charged parishes with setting their able-bodied poor to work.  The law was entirely unspecific about how parishes should establish make-work schemes, but the idea that the poor might be set to work at a profit proved beguiling to seventeenth-century thinkers.  The 1690s witnessed the founding of Corporations of the Poor, collections of parishes (often in towns) that wanted to collaborate on both the provision of poor relief and the creation of workhouses.  These institutions were designed to accommodate the poor as well as set them to work.  Bristol led the way in 1696 and was soon followed by other towns determined to try a work experiment.

The prospect of setting the poor to work at a profit quickly evaporated when in became clear that workhouse populations were not ideally suited to economic productivity, and that workhouse accommodation was much more expensive than allowing people to receive welfare in their own homes.  Nonetheless, other parishes outside formal Corporations wanted to set up their own workhouses.  An Act of 1723 allowed individual parish vestries to build, rent, or buy a parish house that could either be run directly by parish officers or where the management of the house could be contracted out.  Importantly any parish using such a house could use it to ‘test’ the validity of relief claims, by insisting that any poor requiring relief must enter the house.

The decade 1723-33 saw many parish workhouses open, but they were not all places where the poor were set to work.  Some parishes tried to compel the resident poor to work, but many did not.  Similarly parishes were not consistent in requiring the poor to enter the workhouse, and most places operated a two-fold system, whereby some people were taken into the house and others were given cash or material benefits in their homes.  Workhouses in many places evolved into the sites of residential care for the very young or the elderly.

These parish workhouses were quite unlike the Union workhouses founded under the 1834 ‘New’ poor law and satirised by Dickens.  They were typically small in scale, accommodating perhaps 25 people in unsegregated spaces: men and women were not necessarily separated, and children were rarely parted from their mothers.  These workhouses were not prisons but were open institutions, and while some places could be punitive they could also offer elements of unequivocal care (such as specialised foods for the dying).  On the rare occasions when pre-1834 workhouses are mentioned in working-class autobiographies, they are just as likely to be given a positive review as a negative one.




Removal Orders: George Haslehurst

Searching through poor law vouchers, a story is beginning to emerge from the fragments. At the end of April 1831 George Haslehurst was served with a removal order by the Parish of Uttoxeter. Bills were sent to the overseer by the justices’ clerks for carrying out the paperwork. In May, along with his child, Haslehurst was taken by William Williams in his horse and gig to Eckington in Derbyshire. Williams billed the overseers  £2. 8s.  The next time we come across a reference to Haslehurst, also in May 1831, is in the form of an invoice for the burial of the child and another invoice for the provision of a ‘parish coffin’ sent by Goodall and Heath. In the meantime, a bill for ‘medical powders’ and ‘mixtures’, dated 29 April 1831, was sent by the Eckington overseer to the Uttoxeter surgeons Alsop and Chapman. The bill was paid by the Uttoxeter overseer on 30 May. There is no mention of Haslehurst in this bill, but could it relate to the deceased child?

A Butcher’s Hook?

The tradespeople of Uttoxeter worked collectively to supply the town’s workhouse with provisions, and this week I’ve been looking at butchers.  Beef was apparently consumed by the workhouse paupers several times per week, and several butchers benefited from the parish’s custom across the 1820s and early 1830s.  At least five businesses crop up in the vouchers, ranging from the probably small-scale enterprise of Edward Cope, who had a house on the High Street, through to Joseph Shipley who made his home on Market Street but also held other property across the town.


One of the more prosperous butchers in the town was William Summerland, who had a house on Carter Street.  He also payed rates on other land, including a piece with the quirky name ‘Fromety Dick’!


Exciting morning working on the vouchers project today.  Not only did we get the project blog up and running, we also found some graffiti.  The Uttoxeter overseers’ vouchers have been rather text-heavy so far, but we are always on the look-out for images, perhaps embedded in tradespeople’s headed notepaper or ink doodles in the margins.


SRO D3891/6/37 Uttoxeter overseers’ vouchers 1831

This little house was found, appropriately enough, in a tightly-folded bundle of papers relating to lodging.  All of the papers confirmed the costs of providing one or two nights of accommodation to paupers, who had presumably travelled from Uttoxeter in search of work.  The bills concerned lodgings in Manchester, and were sent back to the parish for payment by one James Mills.  Sadly, a search for people called Mills in Manchester is fraught with confusion.  There were eleven men with this name listed in Pigot & Slater’s trade directory of Manchester for 1841, for example, none of whom was either a lodging-house keeper or an obvious candidate for correspondence with distant parishes (such as an attorney).  Does anyone out there know more?


Settlement law: a trial for parishes and paupers but a gift for historians.


The Old Poor Law of 1598-1601 charged parishes with relieving their ‘own’ poor,  but how was belonging to be defined?  By birth, length of residence, or the parish a person called home when they became impoverished?  Acts of 1662, 1692 and 1697 were designed to help parishes determine belonging.  Wives and legitimate children took their husband or father’s place of settlement, while illegitimate children were settled in their parish of birth.  Adolescents and adults had the ability to earn a settlement by paying parish rates, renting property to the value of over £10 per year, by serving the full term of an apprenticeship, or by securing a full year’s hiring (usually in agricultural employment).


The law of settlement looked simple, but became very complicated to enforce.  Parishes spent large sums to settle legal disputes wherever a poor person’s settlement was in doubt.  Poor people might be uprooted from places they had lived for decades at the moment they became most vulnerable, when they first needed parish assistance.  Grown men and women  might be forcibly removed to parishes they had never visited, because that happened to be where their father was settled.


Historians, though, have good reason to be grateful to the laws of settlement, because they generated all sorts of information about ordinary people that would otherwise not have been recorded.  Settlement certificates were issued by parishes to confirm that poor people definitely ‘belonged’ to them, allowing people to migrate in search of work.  Settlement examinations were taken to determine which parish might be responsible for a migrating person without a certificate, and these can read like potted biographies of the poor.  Pauper letters were written by or on behalf of men and women living in one parish but settled in another, to negotiate the terms of non-resident relief (where the parish of settlement sent money to the parish of residence).


The settlement laws impinge on overseers’ vouchers whenever lawyers, constables or others submitted lengthy bills for their services.  The non-resident poor crop up in the  vouchers too wherever another parish sent in a bill.  They demonstrate that people living outside of a parish could still be very important to that parish, especially if they were responsible for helping poor people find work in a place where they didn’t legally belong.