National Archives’ Pauper Records

At The National Archives it is estimated that there to be thousands of documents written by paupers within the record series MH 12. These ego documents (meaning autobiographical writing) take the form of letters, petitions and signed depositions that came into the Local Government Board and its predecessors, the Poor Law Commission and the Poor Law Board. So within one record series documents can be found that set out the pauper experience written by paupers themselves.

These letters and petitions are a fantastic resource for anyone: senior academics researching poverty and society in the 19th century; local historians interested in the history of their area; or indeed someone investigating a pauper from their own family tree.

There is a catch though: they are not easy to find.

Parts of MH 12 are digitised and catalogued to item level 1 (there is a research guide that lists the records that are available in this format). This means that a small proportion of the pauper letters held at the National Archives can be found by browsing the records in Discovery, their catalogue.

For unions that haven’t been digitised the only option is to leaf through volumes of MH 12 looking for letters that have been written by the poor. With volumes that are approximately 600 folios 2 long this can be a daunting task.

However, there are signs to look out for. One sign is that letters written by paupers can be distinctive; often they are not on headed paper or the draft letter sheet used by the Poor Law Commission/Poor Law Board, and are usually smaller than the pages around them.

There is a free workshop on 7 October at the National Archives to share what they have found so far. During the workshop pauper letters will be put into context and their significance discussed.

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