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Negotiating the Law of Poor Relief in England, 1800–1840



Over the last two decades, the historiography of poverty and welfare has moved decisively away from considerations of either black letter or case law, in favour of the study of the socio-cultural experiences of the poor themselves. This article uses a large corpus of pauper letters and other correspondence for a number of Midland counties to argue for a reconsideration of the place of the law in shaping pauper entitlements and beliefs. It argues that paupers had a keen appreciation of both black letter and case law and could rhetoricize this knowledge, bringing it to bear in their attempts to establish deservingness in a poor law system that offered no legal guarantees of relief. Even more importantly, paupers came to have detailed knowledge of the grey areas of the law, a territory on which they could exercise their own agency vis-à-vis officials. The article also tries to trace the genealogy of this legal knowledge, suggesting for instance that paupers shared a common linguistic and knowledge platform with officials and advocates.

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