Like many early nineteenth-century businessmen and women Samuel Garle of Market Place, Uttoxeter had several enterprises on the go. Whilst some people regard this as a sign of a person trying to make ends meet by any means, Garle and others like him knew that it was prudent to have several income streams. If one part of his business suffered a downturn, he could compensate with others. A preprinted bill head reveals that he was a linen and woollen draper, haberdasher, supplier of fashionable London stays and furnisher of funerals. In the corner of his bill is an industrious-looking beehive surrounded by the words ‘Charities supplied at wholesale prices’. This is unusual. Many shopkeepers supplied the wholesale and retail trades, but this is the only example I’ve come across that specifically mentions charities. What I suspect is that Garle’s customers may have supported a number of worthy charities and that this was Garle’s attempt to curry favour.
References in Uttoxeter grocers’ bills to ‘Calais sand’ made us question our paleography recently, as we could not at first understand why a bill for rice, candles, and treacle should also include such an item. Google Books and a Georgian scholar came to our rescue.
Robert Nares (1753-1829) was a clergyman with a love of Elizabethan literature, who in 1822 published the first edition of A Glossary; or Collection of Words, Phrases, Names, and Allusions to Customs Proverbs etc which have been thought to require illustration, in the works of English authors. The entry for Calais sand reveals that it the phrase has two meanings, one martial and the other domestic. Duelling was forbidden in England but permitted on the continent, and Calais sand was proverbially the nearest portion of continental land to the English coast. It was therefore the closest location for legitimate duelling. Some eager combatants held that the import of sand from Calais to England permitted duelling without crossing the channel, so long as the duel was conducted literally on the sand. Nares thought this ludicrous, but cited several instances of Calais sand being referenced in relation to duelling including by the playwright and Shakespearean contemporary Thomas Tomkis. Fortunately, he also observed a more mundane use for imported sand, as a household scouring agent. In this way, sand was used to keep kitchen pots clean; it is likely it was also used in writing, shaken over freshly-written documents to dry the ink and prevent blotting.
Nares’ book was republished throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, suggesting that his digest of definitions and quotes substantially outlived the man. Google books has given it a potential twenty-first century readership: the Staffordshire Poor Law Biographies project is just one beneficiary.
Poor-law historian Dorothy Marshall launched an early and excoriating attack on parish officers and tradesmen. In her eyes they were guilty of ‘jobbery’, in other words colluding to ensure that lucrative poor-law supply contracts were distributed to a small group of acquaintances, so garnering reliable income for friends. In this way parish administrators and leading rate-payers were guilty of acting on self-interest rather than primarily for the benefits of paupers or for rate-payers generally. The problem is that few subsequent historians of the Old Poor Law have made any attempt to refine this picture. Geoffrey Oxley argued that the overseers had an onerous and tedious role, for which they were largely untrained. This meant they sometimes cut corners to make their lives easier rather than being guilty of outright corruption. But here the debate has largely stopped, at least for the law before 1834.
A thorough unpacking of overseers’ vouchers offers a fresh opportunity to refine our view of parish officers and tradesmen very substantially. We can use vouchers to ask questions about the value of goods supplied to the parish: were overseers paying over the odds to line the pockets of their friends? Can we devise localised price series’ for some commodities? Is it possible to identify networks among those working for the poor law, such that some overseers gave preference to certain groups of suppliers (who then went in and out of favour, with the annual changes in overseers roles)? How much money were some suppliers making from their relationship with parishes, and what was the ratio between their income from the poor law and their wealth at death?
Admittedly there are some aspects of the supply-side of the poor law which are likely to remain opaque. It is not probable that the vouchers will speak to the quality of materials channeled towards workhouses and paupers, particularly in ‘normal’ weeks and months when no evidence of any complaints survive. Similarly it would be desirable to learn more about the educational and occupational backgrounds of overseers and tradesmen alike, but it will need some energetic genealogical research plus a good dose of luck to learn such details for more than a handful of men.
With all their limitations, however, vouchers may enable us to move beyond the stark division of ‘jobbery’ from overwork, to comment in a more sensitive way on the ebb and flow of parish work and parish resources. Even a partial picture of business success and failure in relation to poor-law work will be a substantial advance on the present state of our knowledge, and there is every hope that, in the process, we will uncover some startling and intriguing life stories.
Stramshall had a swan pinner. In 1831 William Allsop sought reimbursement for taking his oath as constable and for John Ward taking his oath as swan pinner.
This poses several questions. Did the role involve what its title suggests? Were swans a particular nuisance in Stramshall? Was it an honorific title – a legacy of former times? Did other places have swan pinners?
Early research has drawn a blank so far….