Everything we don’t know about parish tradesmen

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.

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