In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, men and women who were struggling to get by petitioned their local Justices of the Peace for help: poor relief (if their parish had refused to give them any), wages they were owed, exemption from fines, release from imprisonment. My MSt thesis will look at the expectations about gender and provision voiced in these petitions. Whose income was supposed to support children, single women, ageing relatives? Were men expected to be breadwinners? How did impoverished women describe their working lives and/or domestic responsibilities? My undergraduate dissertation – which used local records to piece together the experiences of relief recipients, ‘vagrants’ and insecure workers in seventeenth-century London – similarly focused on the intersection between gender and poverty.
Having to negotiate with an often hostile state to get basic levels of income or assistance is hardly a problem of the distant past, especially in the context of welfare reform, rising poverty and insecure employment. I spent a few months at an East London anti-poverty organisation during my undergraduate degree, first in the benefits advice department and then in policy and research, and I’ve also done a bit of litigant support – assisting people who can’t afford a solicitor and are representing themselves in court – back home in Newcastle. I hope to pick up advice work again in Oxford. I think that a longer historical perspective can inform today’s debates about welfare and the state, while the current state of affairs gives us lots of useful questions to ask about the past.
Aside from poverty and provision, I’m also interested in the history of black people in early modern England. This November, I’ll be talking about the transatlantic lives of black servants at the Hakluyt Society’s conference on ‘Maritime Trade, Travel and Cultural Encounter in the 18th & 19th Centuries’. I’d like to return to this topic in the future.