In November 1806, Nottinghamshire magistrate Sir Gervase Clifton was visited at his house by one of his poorer neighbours, “a pauper of the village of Wilford.” (Wilford is about three miles from Clifton village and Clifton Hall.) William Kirwin was attempting to sort out complicated domestic arrangements within the framework of the law that governed his family's life. He told the magistrate about his mother-in-law, a widow, currently living in Tollerton. “She is in a very distressed state,” he said; he and his wife wanted her to come and live with them, “so that she may be better taken care of & kept from want.” He had asked the Wilford overseer for permission to take her in but had been refused. The family had tried to help after her husband died: her son (with wife and children) had moved into her cottage on the understanding that “they would take care of her during her Life & allow her good victuals drinks firing & good cloathing.” Something had evidently gone wrong with that arrangement, but we are not to know what, or how, as the entry in Clifton's notebook breaks off here (as is the case with many pieces of magisterial business he recorded). Kirwin was aware of local ratepayers and tensions between parishes in regard to their financial responsibilities under the old Poor Law: what he proposed would keep his mother-in-law from “troubling the … parish of Wilford,” he said. She was financially independent, or at least on marriage she had “brought a many good with her & such as a beds & other goods.” He knew that a justice of the peace was a point of appeal in the vast, complex edifice of ancient statutory law (poor and settlement law) that dictated the way he lived his life. We can discern something of William Kirwin's understanding of these matters from the fragmentary, incomplete account of what he said, and the strategies he used in telling his story; we can discern some of Sir Gervase's from the action he did not take in this case, and what he did not have his clerk record.
(Online publication April 26 2012)
Carolyn Steedman is professor of history at the University of Warwick, U.K. <[email protected]>. Her recent work has been on domestic service in the English eighteenth century, on which she has published several books and articles, including Labours Lost. Domestic Service and the Making of Modern England (2009). Her current project is an investigation of the meaning of law in everyday life in the same period.