I’ve spent the last couple of months on a mission to find petitions in the Sessions Papers of London Lives. The outcome of that quest is just over 10,000 petitions which I’ve made available under a Creative Commons licence, with full documentation, on github:
But this is hopefully just the beginning of a project to explore the London Lives petitions in more depth. I’ve long been a fan of the humble early modern petition addressed to local magistrates, documents to be found in vast numbers in local and legal archives. Petitions were instigated by institutions and by individuals, by elites and by paupers, and all sorts of people in between. They were used by convicted criminals to beg for the royal pardon; by officials and contractors to claim expenses for government work; by private individuals to complain about abusive behaviour by neighbours, employers, apprentices, husbands or local officials; by parishes to appeal official decisions about paupers and vagrants; to claim exemptions from local office or taxes; and more.
Petitions like the one above, addressed to Middlesex magistrates in 1715 by Ester Cutler, a ‘Weddow woman’ with ‘nothing to live apon but what she can gitt out of selling a few herbs’, and requesting an exemption from paying poor rates. Ester Cutler’s petition is perhaps unusual in some ways. Apart from the typically deferential language of “your humble petishnor”, it does not quite follow many of the formal conventions of petitions in the Sessions Papers, to be seen in the petition below, from the parish officers of St George Botolph Lane in 1693, which has a much more elaborate opening address (‘To the Right Honoble. Sr . John Fleete Knt Lord Maior of the City of London…’) and the usual line ‘And they shall Pray Etc’. This type of petition is much more formulaic and generally adheres to more elaborate d structural and linguistic conventions.
Ester’s spelling is also unusual: in the 10,000 London Lives transcriptions, I can find just one other petitioner who writes ‘petition(er)’ with the spelling ‘sh’. The spellings ‘gentellmen’, ‘consederacion’, ‘weddow’, ‘apon’, ‘gitt’, ‘desiers’ are all equally unusual, or nearly so. The spelling of even high status petitions is much less standardised than in modern writing (and full of abbreviations), but by the early 18th century their variations are smaller – ‘poor’ vs poore’, ‘relief’ vs ‘releif’, etc.
It looks as though Ester wrote her own petition (the hand including signature is the same throughout), and that too is probably quite uncommon (though another question that warrants further investigation). Ester’s writing ability, for all her non-standard spellings, suggests that even if she really was as poor as she claimed to be in 1715, she probably came from more affluent origins. Perhaps her claims of poverty should not quite be taken at face value; she’s a rate payer, not a pauper. But she might well have been on a social descent towards that fate, and that was an experience of ageing and widowhood that was far from unusual in 18th-century London. Widows like Ester were frequent petitioners.
In 1713, Mary Donne of St Giles Cripplegate was another petitioning for exemption from parish rates. She too emphasised her continuing efforts to make ends meet but
now being reduced to great Poverty by reason of her Age and hard Labour, Whith the loss of one of her Eyes, and a great dimness in the other, that she is uncapable of doing any manner of Work for a livelyhood except Knitting.
And Rachell White, the widow of a London tradesman, petitioned the magistrates in 1721 at ‘about 70 years of age and by Long Sickness very infirme’, to complain about her treatment by local officials and demand the restitution of a parish allowance which enabled her to live in the ‘Coopers alms house’ (with the warning that if she could no longer stay there she would become a much greater expense for the parish). The magistrates ordered the parish to pay her a weekly allowance of 1 shilling.
Wherefore yor. poor petitionr most humbly Implores yor Honrs in yor Tender Compassion & timely Consideration; would be pleased To order the said parish to allow her a Competent mentanance The Small allowance She had being taken away by Mr. Masters the present Churchwarden; his pretence being that she doth not want any parish allowance, by Reason She is att present in the Coopers alms house; The Master with Sr. Peter Eton who put her in Seeing her great poverty will Certainly turn her out ffor they Say they will not Suffer any their to be Starved to Death without the parish she belongs unto will allow her a mentainance She Shall not be their to Dissgrace the Company but must be wholy put upon the parish wherefore She most humbly Beseeches yor Honours timely Relief.
Jonathan Healey, Petitions of the People? (many headed monster)
Thomas Sokoll, ‘Writing for relief: Rhetoric in English pauper letters 1800-1834‘ (pdf)