Vol. 83: Mid Sussex Poor Law Records, 1601-1835



Editors: Ian Nelson & Norma Pilbeam
Volume: Volume 83
Published 2001
ISBN: 978 085445 050 3

This book presents the fullest picture yet to be achieved of an almost invisible community: the English rural poor of the two centuries up to 1835.
The poor had their annals; and they are by no means “short and simple” as Thomas Gray suggested. They survive in formidable quantity. Their lives have come down to us through the bureaucracy which controlled and monitored their movements, apprenticed their children and attempted to arrange the maintenance of their illegitimate offspring. The records of the parish overseers and the vestries, and of the courts of Quarter Sessions, combine to preserve their stories. Although this documentation exists in all English counties and is a well-known source, its publication in such range and depth has never been achieved before. In this volume the editors have attempted the coverage of a cohesive rural area by abstracting the records for a block of 23 parishes based round the modern area of Mid Sussex.

There are a host of personal stories – like that of William Roberts, in 1618 whipped as a vagrant at Cuckfield and sent to “travayle” home to Anglesey within 30 days. Or Mary Willson, in 1743 a serving maid in a London coffee house, left destitute by the death of her soldier husband at the siege of Cartagena in Central America. Or Edward Hillman, in 1741 sent back in his old age from Tonbridge to the “home” parish of Cuckfield he had left 37 years before. Or Anne Wright, a soldier’s wife found begging in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, in 1746 and sent back by a succession of carriers to her husband’s parish of East Grinstead. Or Thomas Andrew, a Marine from Chatham in 1764, sent back to Cowfold where he had been born in a barn to vagrant parents a quarter century earlier.

The result is the biography of a rootless underclass over two centuries. It records the origins, movement, employment and unemployment of over 10,000 individuals whose poverty made them subject to constant invigilation from the local officials. The volume will have enormous appeal to family historians, and great value to demographers, and to social historians of the dispossessed. For the first time they will have a database which will be sufficiently large and consistent for genuine comparisons to be made and significant conclusions to be drawn.

Norma Pilbeam first began to transcribe and extract these records in the course of her extensive genealogical research over 15 years ago: Ian Nelson has researched and written on Mid Sussex local history, and recently edited Hurstpierpoint – kind and charitable (2001).

Cover illustration by W.J. Parrott

443 pages including indexes, 6 illustrations and map, hardback, colour dustjacket.