The Economic History Review

Belonging and community: understandings of ‘home’ and ‘friends’ among the English poor, 1750–18501

Volume 65 Issue 1
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Pages: 1-25Authors: K. D. M. SNELL
Published online: February 23, 2011DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2010.00561.x

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This article is based on unique ‘narratives of the poor’, that is, letters from poor people to their parishes of settlement, petitions to the London Refuge of the Destitute, and letters from mothers to the London Foundling Hospital, with supportive evidence from newspapers. These display fundamental concepts among the English poor, who were often poorly literate, and who comprised the majority of the population. Discussion focuses upon their understandings of ‘home’, ‘belonging’, ‘friends’, and ‘community’. These key concepts are related here to modern discussions, to set important concerns into historical perspective. ‘Friends’, valuably studied by sociologists such as Pahl, had a wide meaning in the past. ‘Home’ meant (alongside abode) one’s parish of legal settlement, where one was entitled to poor relief under the settlement/poor laws. This was where one ‘belonged’. Ideas of ‘community’ were held and displayed even at a distance, among frequently migrant poor, who wrote to their parishes showing strong ties of attachment, right, and local obligation. This discussion explores these issues in connection with belonging and identity. It elucidates the meaning and working of poor law settlement, and is also an exploration of popular mentalities and the semi-literate ways in which these were expressed.