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Economies and Strategies of the Northern Rural Poor: the Mitigation of Poverty in a West Riding Township in the Nineteenth Century

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2017

School of History, Michael Sadler Building, University of Leeds, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 9JT, UK


In the agricultural township of Rigton, ten miles north of Leeds, three-quarters of labouring households had recourse to poor relief at some stage between 1815 and 1861. The chronology of this microhistory straddles the end of the French Wars, the Sturges Bourne reforms, and, due to the existence of the country's largest Gilbert Unions, the region's laggardly application of the Poor Law Amendment Act. It seeks, by source linkage, to establish the contexts of labour, welfare and the life cycle within a northern community, and place the poor and their experiences of, and strategies against, poverty within that community. A demographic overview introduces the contexts of labouring families' lives, whilst a commentary on expositions of biographical reconstitutions of two generations of a labouring family, forms a major part of this exploration. This argues that whilst relationships with, and mitigation against, poverty were fluid and complex, as the century progressed labouring families had a decreasing interface with the Poor Law, and adopted and developed new economic strategies to add to their portfolio of makeshifts.1

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2017 

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1. This article has developed from doctoral research that examines the contexts of work, welfare and poverty, and investigates the experiences of the poor, in and around Leeds between the 1820s and the 1850s. This research is undertaken at the University of Leeds, funded by AHRC Block Grant Partnership Doctoral Studentship, Award No. 1346320, and is supervised by Professor Malcolm Chase, to whom I am indebted for his unwavering encouragement and support.

2. 22 Geo. III, c. 83, ‘An Act for the better Relief and Employment of the Poor’ (1782). For a comprehensive exposition and analysis of the adoption and implementation of this and later enabling acts in the south see Samantha Anne Shave, ‘Poor Law Reform and Policy Innovation in Rural Southern England, c.1780–1850’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Southampton, 2010), and the impending monograph, S. A. Shave, Pauper Policies: Poor Law Practice in England, 1780–1850 (forthcoming, Manchester University Press).

3. PP 1837-38 (191)(192), Eleventh report from the Select Committee on the Poor Law Amendment Act, p. 3.

4. PP 1837 (546-I)(546-II), Third Annual report of the Poor Law Commissioners for England and Wales, p. 15.

5. Copies of Carlton Union incorporation agreements, Harrogate Local Collections, Harrogate Central Library (hereafter HCL) Box 1/2, 1857.

6. PP 1845 (409), Report from the Select Committee on Gilbert Unions, p. xi.

7. PP 1837 (546-I)(546-II), p. 15.

8. Based on PP 1847-48 (642) Poor Laws. Returns of the numbers of families relieved . . . for the week ending 20 Feb 1846, and 20 Feb 1847.

9. Brundage, Anthony, The English Poor Laws 1700–1930 (Basingstoke, 2001), p. 21 Google Scholar; Williams, Samantha, Poverty, Gender and Life-cycle under the English Poor Law, 1760–1834 (Woodbridge, 2011), p. 5 Google Scholar.

10. Webb, S. and Webb, B., English Local Government Vol 7: English Poor Law History, Part 1 (London, 1927), pp. 272–6Google Scholar; the Webbs, however, although foregrounding the supposed southerly predominance of Gilbert Unions, acknowledged there were some northern ones; stating they were ‘practically all rural in character, the great majority in south-eastern England, East Anglia and the Midlands, with a few in Westmoreland and Yorkshire’, p. 275.

11. Rose, Michael, ‘The anti-Poor Law movement in the north of England’, Northern History, 1:1 (1966), 7091 CrossRefGoogle Scholar (89–90); Wells, Roger, ‘The Poor Law Commission and publicly-owned housing in the English countryside, 1834–47’, Agricultural History Review, 55:2 (2007), 181204 Google Scholar (193).

12. HCL Box 2/2, Rigton Book 1826–61, 1861; Leeds Mercury, 21st August 1860.

13. See, for example, Carter, Paul, Bradford Poor Law Union: Papers and Correspondence with the Poor Law Commission, October 1834 to January 1839 (Woodbridge, 2004)Google Scholar; Driver, Felix, Power and Pauperism: The Workhouse System, 1834–1884 (Cambridge, 1993)Google Scholar.

14. French, Henry, ‘An irrevocable shift: detailing the dynamics of rural poverty in southern England, 1762–1834: a case study’, Economic History Review, 68:3 (2015), 769805 CrossRefGoogle Scholar (770); Shave, Samantha A., ‘The dependent poor? (Re)constructing the lives of individuals “on the parish” in rural Dorset, 1800–1832’, Rural History, 20:1 (2009), 6797 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Poverty, Gender and Life-cycle.

15. Reay, Barry, Microhistories: Demography, Society and Culture in Rural England, 1800–1930 (Cambridge, 1996), p. 259 Google Scholar; Wrightson, Keith, ‘Villages, villagers and village studies’, Historical Journal, 18:3 (1975), 632–9CrossRefGoogle Scholar (633).

16. Reay, Microhistories, p. xxi; Sharpe, Pamela, ‘The total reconstitution method: a tool for class specific study’, Local Population Studies, 44 (1990), 4151 Google Scholar; Wrigley, E. A., Davies, R. S., Oeppen, J. E., and Schofield, R. S., English Population History from Family Reconstitution 1580–1837 (Cambridge, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Williams, Poverty, Gender and Life-cycle, see pp. 30–4.

17. Boulton, Jeremy, ‘Indoors or Outdoors? Welfare Priorities and Pauper Choices in the Metropolis under the Old Poor Law, 1718–1824’, in Briggs, Chris, Kitson, P. M. and Thompson, S. J., eds, Population, Welfare and Economic Change in Britain 1290–1834 (Woodbridge, 2014), pp. 153–87Google Scholar; and see: <> [accessed January 2016]; Shave, ‘The dependent poor?’, see 75–7.

18. <> [accessed December 2013 to March 2016].

19. Ibid.; and <> [accessed August 2016]; <> [accessed December 2013 to March 2016].

20. Simpson family reconstitution from the manual linkage of the following records. West Yorkshire Archive Service (hereafter WYAS): Parish records: BDP1, Addingham St Peter; BDP7, Bingley All Saints; BDP17, Calverley St Wilfred; RDP49, Kirkby Overblow All Saints; BDP83, Otley All Saints; BDP84, Shipley St Paul; BDP104, Weston All Saints. Non-conformist records: WYAS WYL1165, Otley Circuit (Methodist New Connexion). Harrogate Central Library (hereafter HCL), Harrogate Local Collections: Rigton township records, Box 2/2: Rigton Town's Book 1770–1825, overseers' accounts and surveyors' accounts; Rigton Book 1826–61, overseers' accounts and surveyors' accounts. HCL Box 1/2, Measurement and Valuation, 1838, Poor Rate Book, 1852 Vestry Minutes, 1831–1910, Rigton Friendly Society, minutes, 1863–92; Rigton Friendly Society accounts, 1893–7; Apprenticeship indentures, 1827–34. Yorkshire Archaeological Society (hereafter YAS), MS1010/6, Disbursement Book of Thomas Kent, Rigton Overseer, [1825–]1826. The National Archives (hereafter TNA): Census returns: Rigton HO 107/1287/24, 1841; Rigton HO 107/2284, Idle HO 107/2312, Bingley HO 107/2286, 1851; Rigton RG 9/3208, Idle RG 9/3343, [North] Leeds RG 9/3379, Shipley RG 9/3341, 1861; Rigton RG 10/4293, Menston RG 10/4303, 1871; Rigton RG 11/3522, 1881; Rigton RG 12/3522, 1891; Rigton RG 13/4056, 1901.

21. The overall population growth for England and Wales over this time was 49%, for the West Riding 64%. Based on PP 1852–3 (1631) and (1632), Census of Great Britain, 1851. Population tables, I. Numbers of the inhabitants, in the years 1801, 1811, 1821, 1831, 1841, & 1851. Vol I, p. ccviii; and Vol II, pp. 22–4.

22. PP 1833 (149), Abstract of Population Returns of Great Britain, 1831, pp. 800–1.

23. Based on TNA HO 107/1287/24, 1841.

24. Pat Hudson, The Industrial Revolution (London, 1992), p. 159.

25. Based on PP 1843 (496), Enumeration Abstract, 1841, pp. 381–97; and TNA HO 107/1287/24, 1841, pp. 5–20.

26. PP 1834 (167), Factories Inquiry Commission. Supplementary report. Part 1, Appendix C.1., pp. 170–1.

27. Based on PP 1844 (63), Poor rates . . . return for the year ending Lady-day 1839 to 1842, on each parish in England and Wales, pp. 209, 216.

28. Brundage, The English Poor Laws, p. 51; Steven King, Poverty and Welfare in England, 1700–1850: A Regional Perspective (Manchester, 2000), p. 26.

29. HCL Box 1/2, Rigton Vestry Minutes, 1831.

30. HCL Box 2/2, Rigton Town's Book 1770–1825, overseer's accounts 1813–18.

31. Malcolm Chase, ‘The “local state” in Regency Britain’, Local Historian, 43:4 (2013), 266–78 (274).

32. Wells, Roger, ‘Poor-law reform in the south-east: the impact of the “Sturges Bourne Acts” during the agricultural depression, 1815–1835’, Southern History, 23 (2001), 52115 Google Scholar (53).

33. Shave, Samantha, ‘The impact of Sturges Bourne's Poor Law reforms in rural England’, Historical Journal, 56:2 (2013), 399429 CrossRefGoogle Scholar (401).

34. King, Poverty and Welfare, p. 104.

35. Terse descriptions of some inmates of the Carlton workhouse in MH12/15286, ‘Report of Visit by the Commissioners in Lunacy’, Correspondence with Poor Law Unions, Carlton Union, 574A, 1835–56, 26th July 1848, TNA.

36. Stapleton, Barry, 'Inherited poverty and life-cycle poverty: Odiham, Hanmpshire, 1650–1850’, Social History, 18:3 (1993), 339–55CrossRefGoogle Scholar (341); Rigton Town's Book 1770–1825.

37. PP 1826 (383), Commission of Inquiry into Charities in England and Wales; Fifteenth Report, pp. 631–2.

38. PP 1843 (433)(434), Public Charities: . . . reports made by the Commission of Inquiry . . ., Part II, pp. 688–9; and WYAS P49/3/1, Kirkby Overblow All Saints, baptismal register.

39. PP 1819 (224), A digest of parochial returns made to the select committee appointed to inquire into the education of the poor: session 1818, Vol. 1, p. 1148; and PP 1835 (62), Education enquiry. Abstract of the answers and returns made pursuant to an address of the House of Commons, dated 24th May 1833. England. Vol. 1, p. 1176.

40. HCL Box 2/2, Rigton Book 1826–61, 1858; Box 1/2, Vestry Minutes, 1857; HCL Box 2/2, Rigton Town's Book 1770–1825, constable's accounts 1809 and surveyors' accounts 1822.

41. For the central role such societies played in working-class life in the nineteenth century, see Cordery, Simon, British Friendly Societies, 1750–1914 (Basingstoke, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

42. PP 1852-53 (31), Friendly Societies. Abstract of returns respecting Friendly Societies in England and Wales, during the five years ending the 31st day of December 1850, pp. 164–5.

43. Hallas, Christine, In Sickness and in Health: Askrigg Equitable, Benevolent, and Friendly Society 1809–2000 (York, 2000), p. 31 Google Scholar; and PP 1831-32 (706), Report from the committee on ‘the bill to regulate the labour of children in the mills and factories of the United Kingdom’, p. 66.

44. Sick pay recipients in neighbouring townships, Pannal, Dunkeswick, and Askwith, alongside further-flung payees in Bingley and Wortley (Leeds) are represented in the HCL Box 1/2, Rigton Friendly Society accounts, 1893–7.

45. Ibid.

46. HCL Box 1/2, Rigton Friendly Society minutes, 1863–92; Rigton Friendly Society accounts, 1893–7.

47. Young, Arthur, General View of the Agriculture of the County of Sussex (London, 1813), p. 443 Google Scholar.

48. See, for example, Griffin, Carl J., Protest, Politics and Work in Rural England, 1700–1850 (Basingsoke, 2014), pp. 30–1CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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50. PP 1834 (44), Report from His Majesty's commissioners for inquiring into the administration and practical operation of the Poor Laws, Appendix B, p. 1(a); p. 605(a); p. 607(a); p. 617 (a); p. 619(a); and p. 624(a).

51. YAS MS1010/1, Isaac Denison Book, Rigton, account book.

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54. PP 1864 (3416), Public health. Sixth report of the Medical Officer of the Privy Council, pp. 318–21. The rationale re: the value of food was: ‘in this sum is included the value of every article of food . . . which may not cost the labourer any money, but result from his labour, and is therefore part of his daily income’, ibid., p. 260.

55. Young, General View, p. 442.

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58. PP 1843 (510), Reports of Special Assistant Poor Law Commissioners on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, pp. 302–6.

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62. William Wailes, letter to the Leeds Mercury, 21st September 1839.

63. Leeds Mercury, 9th November 1872; and ‘Yorkshire Game Lists’, in Yorkshire Gazette, 5th October 1839.

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65. HCL Box 2/2, Rigton Measurement and Valuation, 1838.

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69. PP 1864 (3416), p. 250.

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72. HCL Box 1/2, Rigton Town's Book 1770–1825, surveyors' accounts, especially 1811–12, 1815–16; Vestry Minutes, 1865, 1867.

73. These were: labouring families who had significant recourse to relief, the Simpson, Bailey and Mountain families, alongside widows Martha Briggs and Christiana Ingle; and labouring families who had minimal or no recourse to relief, the Greaves, Hornby and Wade families.

74. For an overview of the settlement laws, see Snell, K. D. M., Parish and Belonging: Community, Identity and Welfare in England and Wales, 1700–1950 (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 85–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for non-resident relief, see Sokoll, Thomas, ‘Old age in poverty: the record of Essex pauper letters, 1780–1834’, in Hitchcock, Tim, King, Peter and Sharpe, Pamela, eds, Chronicling Poverty: the Voices and Strategies of the English Poor, 1640–1840 (Basingstoke, 1997), pp. 129–30Google Scholar.

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79. Wells, ‘The Poor Law Commission and publicly-owned housing’, 204.

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83. Inflation due to the Crimean War: an increase of 28% in the wholesale price index for Great Britain has been calculated for this period; Thompson, William R. and Zuk, L. Gary, ‘War, inflation, and the Kondriateff long wave’, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 26:4 (1982), 621–44CrossRefGoogle Scholar (633).

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87. PP 1834 (44), Appendix A, p. 797.

88. TNA HO 107/1313/1, HO 107/228, ‘Report of Visit by the Commissioners in Lunacy’; MH12/15286, 26th July 1848.

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94. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 2nd December 1891.

95. Bracher's model of lactational infecundity concluded that a median birth interval of 22.2 months was provided by lactation alone, without resort to abstinence or contraception. Bracher, M., ‘Breastfeeding, lactational infecundity, contraception and the spacing of births: implications of the Bellagio consensus statement’, Health Transition Review, 2 (1992), 1947 Google Scholar (26), in Wrigley et al., English Population History, pp. 493–4.

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