At the heart of the English and Welsh Old Poor Law (1601–1834) lay a set of timeless questions: who should be eligible for welfare payments; how such payments should be balanced with contribution; and what to “do” about migrants. In recent historiography, answers to these questions have been constructed through the lens of pauper letters: narratives written by or for the poor who were out of their place of settlement. These documents show that the poor had agency in shaping relief practice. Our article puts pauper letters back into their wider context. They were in fact a minor part of the epistolary corpus that ultimately shaped how the poor obtained relief. Within this corpus, the largest group of writers were epistolary advocates—friends, family, officials, doctors, landlords, employers and neighbors—who wrote on behalf of the poor. Classifying and analyzing such letters, we argue: that the parish state was, and was expected, to be malleable in the face of advocates; that a deeply ingrained culture of individual and communal philanthropy ensured that poor law practice was not simply skewed in favor of the interests of ratepayers; and that in responding to the question of what to “do” about migrant rights to welfare, officials and epistolary advocates corresponded across a landscape in which contestability and balance were the key criteria. Even as the political lifeblood of the Old Poor Law flowed away in the 1820s and 1830s, communal attitudes towards migrant welfare needs and parochial duties remained remarkably flexible.


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pp. 784-807
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