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The English Pauper Letter 1790-1830
journal contributionposted on 21.03.2016, 16:02 by Steven A. King
The historiography of English literacy has been dominated by a singular myth: the poor had an oral culture that fused slowly and imperfectly into a written culture only by the mid- and late nineteenth-century. While it is certainly true that the English poor had a strong oral culture, it is misleading to point to low literacy levels. My research on pauper letters suggests that the poor could and did write, either as an individual or collective endeavour. They sent letters to potential advocates, magistrates and above all to the officials who controlled the welfare system. These were more than petitions, often embodying sophisticated rhetorical and claims-making processes and fulfilling the intertwining purposes of communicating fact, establishing entitlement and navigating a discretionary welfare system. These letters – examples of oral writing – survive in their hundreds of thousands and in the absence of any organised or recognised class of scribes we can be confident that they approximate to the words, experiences and thoughts of the poor themselves. This article explores the English pauper letter, looking at structure, direction, content, rhetoric and inter-textuality, and with a particular focus on the first half of the nineteenth century. The pauper letter, I argue, both reflects and creates the agency of the poor.