Uncovering the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Londoners: U3A Shared Learning Project

The London Region of U3As and Birkbeck’s ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ will be collaborating in a Shared Learning Project from September 2019. All U3A members are eligible to apply to take part.

How could ordinary Londoners voice their complaints and concerns in an age of plague, fire and civil war? In the seventeenth century, one of the most common means was to send a petition. It was one of the only acceptable ways to address the authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, it was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’. People at all levels of society – from noblemen to paupers – used petitions to make their voices heard. Some were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper; a few were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a vital source for illuminating the concerns of supposedly ‘powerless’ people and for catching a glimpse of their lives.

This U3A Shared Learning Project will give you the chance to use a large set of transcribed petitions from seventeenth-century Londoners as a starting point for exploring their lives and communities. Many of these documents include short autobiographical narratives about the petitioner and their circumstances, which can reveal startling details about the lives of our predecessors. The petitioners include many individuals such as prisoners asking for mercy, paupers requesting charitable aid and apprentices complaining about abusive masters. They also include some groups like the hackney coachmen seeking a monopoly and veterans expressing grievances about their treatment. Often much more information about these petitioners can be gleaned from the sorts of sources used by local and family historians such as parish registers and legal records. Exploring these histories as a U3A group will undoubtedly uncover a very interesting cast of characters.

The petitions have been collected and transcribed as part of a research project based at Birkbeck, University of London, and the academic project leader – Dr Brodie Waddell – will advise participants on the U3A Shared Learning Project. Training will also be provided by the London Metropolitan Archives and the Westminster City Archives to allow you to find out more about who these petitioners were, where they lived and why they spoke up. The project will run from six months from September 2019 to February 2020 and the results will be published online as a series of short pieces on the academic project website.

U3A Project Leader: Peter Cox

Academic Advisor: Dr Brodie Waddell of Birkbeck, University of London