Women, gender and non-lethal violence in Quarter Sessions petitioning narratives

We have spent much of the last year and a half transcribing, editing and publishing hundreds of petitions to local magistrates in early modern England. But what can you actually do with all these new sources?

Sharon Howard has a new post on her blog showing that they can be used explore how people described and responded to violence in their communities. She focuses on 85 petitions about non-lethal violence, most involving a women as either victim or perpetrator or both.

She found that petitioners crafted narratives of violence that emphasised malice, public reputation, fear, material losses and of course physical trauma. Moreover, these narratives were highly gendered, with women often highlighting issues such as pregnancy, motherhood or marriage when trying to make their case to the magistrates.

The details are fascinating, so read the full post to find out more:

In 1594 Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife petitioned Cheshire Quarter Sessions, setting out the many abuses and outrages perpetrated against them by Anne Lingard. She had had unjust warrants against them, claiming to be afraid of “bodily harm”. This was “greatly astonishing” to the petitioners, who were “well known never to have disturbed her majesties peace” or threatened Anne herself. … [Read the rest of the full post here]

Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife. QJF 24/1/25 (1594)
The petition of Allys Whittingham, William Bealey and Margery his wife, 1594. Image courtesy of Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 24/1/25.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to the House of Lords from the Seventeenth Century

Over 730 petitions addressed to the House of Lords – with a few to the House of Commons – have now been made public on British History Online. Full transcriptions of these manuscripts from the Parliamentary Archives are now freely available to be read online, alongside hundreds of other petitions from local archives and from the national ‘State Papers’.

Parliament was an obvious focal point for people with grievances and demands, as a ‘representative’ institution that played an increasingly active part in encouraging the submission of petitions, and as the highest court in the land. At times, MPs and peers were inundated with supplications, from all corners of the land, and all sorts of people. Due to the devastating Palace of Westminster fire of 1834 – when the papers of the Upper House were deemed more valuable than those of the Lower House – the overwhelming majority of those that survive are contained within the archives of the House of Lords, and the transcriptions in this volume represent a small sample of the texts that have been preserved. Rather than select texts on the basis of important events and famous people, we opted to transcribe as many as possible – usually all – from particular years when Parliament met 1597, 1601, 1606, 1610, 1614, 1621, 1624, 1640, 1648, 1661, 1671, 1679, 1689 and 1696.

These petitions provide ample testimony about the range of issues that motivated petitioners, about their expectations of Parliament, and about the responses they received. For example, since peers took it upon themselves to address problems with the legal system, they encountered people like Philip Page (1624), who professed to be ‘a poore oppressed prisoner in the comon wardes of the Fleet’. Page narrated a sorry tale of troubles in the Court of Chancery, and of his mistreatment, which was ‘contrary to all equity and conscience’, ‘against common sence’, and indeed ‘fraudulent’. He turned to peers as ‘the principall pillars who support equity and common good’.

To the right reverend, and right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in this high and most honourable court of Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of Philip Page [1624]. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/23.
‘To the right reverend, and right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in this high and most honourable court of Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of Philip Page‘ [1624], first two pages. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/23.
Of course, Parliament was a legislative as well as a judicial institution, and petitions were increasingly submitted by people who sought to express opinions about particular bills as they progressed through both Houses. In a demonstration of the participatory nature of Parliament, as well as London’s development as a global trading port, an interesting example involves a petition from ‘divers shopkeepers and warehouse keepers’ who dealt in ‘India, Persia and China silks, Bengalls and painted callicoes’ submitted in 1696. They were concerned about a bill ‘now lying before your lordships’ that would ‘utterly deprive’ them of their ‘livelyhood’, and they pleaded to be heard at the ‘bar’ of the House. What makes this all the more interesting is that amongst its forty-six signatories were at least fourteen women, headed by Mary Pyke. Petitions to the Lords, in other words, shed valuable light upon the lives and work of ordinary women.

To the right honourable the lords spirituall and temporall in Parliament assembled. The humble peticion of divers shopkeepers and warehouse keepers [1696]. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/484/1051.
Finally, Parliament was obviously the scene for momentous political, religious and constitutional battles, and these too are reflected in our sample. On 19 November 1640, for instance, the Lords received a petition from the Earl of Strafford, lord lieutenant of Ireland and a close ally of both Charles I and Archbishop William Laud. Strafford had recently been imprisoned by the Long Parliament, and he sought to be ‘bayled’, and to be granted access to his solicitor, William Raylton, particularly since he ‘heares not as yet of any matter in spetiall objected against him’. Strafford’s plea was rejected, and his subsequent impeachment for high treason, followed by his controversial trial, attainder and execution in 1641, proved to be a key staging post on the road to civil war and revolution.

To the right honorable the lordes spiritall and temporall in the Highe Court of Parliament assembled. The humble petition of Thomas Earle of Strafford. Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.
To the right honorable the lordes spiritall and temporall in the Highe Court of Parliament assembled, The humble petition of Thomas Earle of Strafford (1640). Image courtesy of the Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/1/43.

Overall, the topics covered by the petitions in this volume – from rich and poor, and from individuals as well as large groups – ranged across all aspects of contemporary life, from debt and imprisonment to litigation and property, as well as the economy, the church and the state.

Chart of topics

Anyone who wants to know more about petitioning in early modern England could start by reading our ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction offering a brief analysis of petitioners and their business. Further guidance and advice will appear in due course; in the meantime, we hope that these transcriptions prove to be as interesting to you as they have been useful to us:

Petitions to the House of Lords, 1597-1696, ed. Jason Peacey, British History Online (2020) <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/house-of-lords>

We would love to hear what you find! Please note that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

The volume was team effort. It was edited by Jason Peacey and transcribed by Gavin Robinson and Tim Wales. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to the Parliamentary Archives who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. Their phenomenal collections provide ample opportunities for further research on petitions, not least in terms of the individuals and communities that appear in our sample. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their financial support, without which these volumes would not have been possible.

This volume represents the last of seven sets of transcribed petitions, the others of which include material from the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the City of Westminster, as well as from the State Papers in The National Archives.

Now Online: New Investigations into Petitioners during the Reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars

During the reign of Charles I, the king and his councillors received hundreds of petitions every year. Then, after civil war broke out in 1642, the new Parliamentary regime in London began receiving petitions as well. As part of ‘The Power of Petitioning’ project, we have transcribed and published almost 400 of these manuscripts from across the seventeenth century on British History Online.

We also completed a six-month Shared Learning Project with a large group of amateur researchers from the London Region of the University of the Third Age. Each of these researchers wrote one or more reports about the petitioners and their requests or complaints.

These short pieces of research are now online and we are very pleased to share them with you …

‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’: The main site for the U3A project, including information about the research methods and important caveats about accuracy and interpretation. Here you will find links to each of the sets of reports as they are published, including the previous set from 1600 to 1625.

‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars, 1625-1649’: The set of 36 reports by the U3A participants, covering the second quarter of the seventeenth century. Each report also includes a professional transcription of the original petition and links to further sources of information.

A petition from Kent just before a Royalist revolt in 1648, discussed in a report by Sarah Harris.

Now Online: New Transcriptions of Petitions to Magistrates in Eighteenth-Century Worcestershire and Cheshire

Our final two sets of petitions to local magistrates have just been published on British History Online. The full transcriptions of 66 petitions to the magistrates of Worcestershire and 17 petitions to those of Cheshire are now free for anyone to read. These documents are not as numerous as our previously published sets, but they offer a new perspective on many ordinary peoples’ complaints and requests in the eighteenth century. When these are added to the volumes that we have already published, there are now transcriptions of 1,407 petitions to county quarter sessions available online from the 1570s to the 1790s.

The latest transcriptions all date to the eighteenth century, with some focusing on traditional concerns such as poor relief and petty litigation while other addressed new issues such as licencing religious dissenters and releasing imprisoned debtors. Many were presented by people who otherwise have left little trace on the historical record, so these texts can provide invaluable information about their lives and concerns.

Among the new transcriptions are several that stand out in various ways from the hundreds of others that we have been working on for this project. For example, perhaps the shortest petition we have in our collection is the request from a group of unnamed Protestant dissenters in Mobberley (Cheshire) to have a licence to worship in a local private house. Dating from 1758, the text of the petition itself is only 27 words, reminding us how routine this process could become over time.

Our shortest petition? Cheshire Archives and Local Studies, QJF 186/4/103.

Also notable is the number of printed petitions that appear in the eighteenth century. In 1720s Worcestershire, twelve of the seventeen surviving petitions are actually printed forms submitted by imprisoned debtors applying for release from gaol, with only the key personal details filled in by hand. These two are a reminder of the bureaucratisation of some aspects of the petitioning process, a trend that Naomi Tadmor has traced in the poor relief system at this same time.

The printed petition of James Oyen, 1725. Worcestershire Archives, Ref.110 BA1/1/274/45.

However, my personal favourites in the new sets are the several petitions from the 1790s submitted to the Worcestershire magistrates asking for licences to open theatres in various local towns. John Boles Watson, manager of the Royal Theatre at Cheltenham, and William Meill, manager of the theatres at Worcester, Wolverhampton and Ludlow, each sought official permission to open theatres in Stourbridge and Great Malvern in this decade. Specifically, they wanted approval for ‘performance of such tragedies, comedies, interludes, opera’s, plays, or farces, as now are or hereafter shall be acted performed or represented at either of the patent or licensed theatres in the city of Westminster’. With a bit of further digging, one might be able to find out exactly what was being performed in this corner of the Midlands at the height of the Anglo-French wars, but for now the petitions still give a sense of the geography of the local cultural scene.

Petition of John Boles Watson, manager of the royal theatre at Cheltenham, 1790. Worcestershire Archives, Ref.110 BA1/1/522/76.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. In the case of Cheshire and Worcestershire, the previous volume introductions have been updated to reflect the addition of the new eighteenth century texts.

We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now you can just dive into the sources:

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

These volumes are truly a team effort. They were edited by Sharon Howard (Cheshire) and Brodie Waddell (Worcestershire), and both were transcribed by Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Cheshire Archives and Local Studies who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions, or to view the original manuscripts. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.

These two volumes complete our publication of quarter sessions petitions, which also includes volumes for Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Westminster. We recently published a volume of petitions in the State Papers and will soon be publishing a volume of petitions to the House of Lords. Watch this site for further announcements.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to Kings, Councillors and Other Rulers in Seventeenth-Century England

Nearly 400 petitions addressed ‘to the King’s most Excellent Majesty’ and other key political authorities in seventeenth-century England are now available on British History Online. Full transcriptions of these manuscripts are now free to read online, alongside more than 1,300 local petitions that we have already transcribed and published. The new volume is a sample of 387 items drawn from the ‘State Papers’ collection held at The National Archives in London.

Hundreds of ‘petitions’ – formal written requests or complaints – were submitted to England’s central authorities every year in this period by people from across  the social and political spectrum. The transcriptions in this volume are only a small sample from the waves of supplication received by the nation’s rulers, but they nonetheless provide a strong sense of the sorts of concerns expressed by people at the time. Rather than focusing on well-known controversies or famous individuals, we simply selected the first four available petitions from each year that were preserved in the State Papers Domestic. This means that the range of topics touched on here is fascinatingly miscellaneous.

One finds many petitions like the complaint submitted by ‘the poore fishermen of the cinque ports’ to King James I in 1609, expressing their anger at foreign fishermen who ‘spoile’ their livelihoods. According to these petitioners, the ‘cuninge practizes of straingers’ from the Low Countries allowed them to monopolise the best fishing areas and sell their catch in English markets. This, they claimed, could be prevented by imposing a royal tax on such sales, ‘wherby the multitude of foraine nations which oppress us wilbe lessened’ and trade will increase ‘to the generall good of the whole kingdome’. The petition was signed by almost 100 individuals from six different ports, showing the high levels of organisation that can already be found in petitioning even at the beginning of the century.

This volume includes some highly political petitions like the one submitted to Parliament by ‘the knightes gentry clergy and commonalty of the countie of Kent’ in May 1648 which asked for peace talks with Charles I, the disbanding of the army, the upholding of ‘the fundamentall constitutions of this common wealth’ in legal trials, and the abolition of the excise. The petitioners claimed that, unless Parliament listened to them, there would be no end to ‘these sad and heavy presures and distempers, whose continewance will inevitably ruine both our selves and our posterities’. It was subscribed just days before the outbreak of a royalist revolt in this county. Such overtly partisan petitions are rare to find in the State Papers, but those that survive can illuminate some of the great political struggles of the age.

Alongside these collective petitions, the volume also includes large numbers of requests for mercy or pardon from individuals accused of serious crimes as well as even more requests from men and women for favour in the form of grants of offices, pensions, lands or tenancies. Others touch on a huge range of topics including diplomatic interventions, trading privileges, aristocratic titles and much else.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. We will be publishing further guidance and advice on this site eventually, but for now just dive into the sources:

Petitions to the State Papers, 1600-1699, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online (2019) <https://www.british-history.ac.uk/petitions/state-papers>

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

The volumes were edited by Brodie Waddell and transcribed by Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to The National Archives who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their financial support, without which these volumes would not have been possible.

This new volume is part of a series of seven planned volumes, including five comprising petitions to the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire and the City of Westminster, which have already been published. The final volume will be petitions to the House of Lords. We will announce the last volume here when it is complete.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to Westminster’s Local Magistrates, c.1620-1800

We have just published full transcriptions of 424 petitions received by the Justices of the Peace for the City of Westminster in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The texts of these requests and complaints are now free to search and read on British History Online. The addition of these Westminster petitions to our recently published volumes for Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire brings the total to over 1,300 transcribed petitions available in our series.

The City of Westminster included most of London’s rapidly growing western suburbs in this period, home to about 130,000 residents by 1700. Wealthy courtiers and politicians lived here alongside huge numbers of poorer workers and destitute paupers, so unsurprisingly the law courts here were busy. The petitions transcribed in this volume often arose from local conflicts that led to residents submitting supplications to the local magistrates for assistance, mercy or arbitration.

In 1620, for example, a servant named Elizabeth Sandes complained that she had ‘behaved her selfe in verie civell and honest manner’ in service since arriving in London about thirteen years earlier. However, after the death of her most recent master, Doctor Fisher of the High Commission, she ended up being ‘drawen into follie’ by the false promises of Charles Chambers, gentleman. Now she was pregnant, but Chambers refused to marry her or offer any support. She pleaded for the court to force Chambers to provide some financial help, as ‘in equitie and conscience’ he ought to do. It seems the magistrates granted her petition, because Chambers was then seized and taken to the Gatehouse Prison by the constable.

While this is just a single example, it is suggestive of the sorts of stories that frequently appear in these petitions. Many involve complaints from pregnant women or single mothers about negligent fathers. Even more involve servants or apprentices in conflict with their masters. And the largest group of all concern various forms of litigation, whether appeals from victims seeking justice or pleas from accused people seeking mercy.

Alongside these many individual petitions, there were also a substantial number from larger groups or whole communities, such as the five men, three women ‘and diverse other inhabitantes in Hartshorne Lane in the parish of Saint Martins in the Feildes’ who petitioned in 1636. They complained that the old watercourse that ran through the lane had been stopped up, leading to floods in ‘all our cellars and lower roomes’ and the spread of ‘daingerous and ill savours’. They sought the help of the magistrates to combat the perilously foul smell.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now you can just dive into the sources:

Petitions to the Westminster Quarter Sessions, ed. Brodie Waddell, British History Online (December 2019)

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

[Note: Unfortunately the search interface on British History Online is currently not working correctly. To search, rather than browse, the petitions series, you can use google’s ‘inurl’ feature. Simply type inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” into the search bar, followed by the desired keyword. For example, inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” debt will return petitions including the word ‘debt’. The new Westminster petitions are not yet indexed by google, so will not be included in these results. Apologies for the inconvenience.]

The seventeenth-century petitions were photographed by the archives staff at London Metropolitan Archives and they have been transcribed by Tim Wales. Images of the eighteenth-century petitions were drawn from London Lives, 1690-1800 and the transcriptions there were revised for a higher level of accuracy by Gavin Robinson. The texts for revision were extracted by Sharon Howard from ‘London Lives XML Data’, which is CC-BY-NC licensed. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to London Metropolitan Archives, especially Charlie Turpie, Principal Archivist, who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections and online catalogue to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.

This is the fifth in a series of seven planned volumes which already includes petitions to the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire, and will soon also include petitions to the Crown and the House of Lords. We will announce the new volumes here as they appear.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to the Magistrates of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, 1589-1799

Full transcriptions of 333 local ‘petitions’ from two Midland counties have just been published on British History Online. The first volume includes 239 requests submitted to the magistrates for Staffordshire and the second volume includes 94 to the magistrates of Derbyshire. When added to our recent publication of 572 petitions from Cheshire and Worcestershire, we now have over 900 transcriptions freely available from the late sixteenth to late eighteenth century.

These documents cover a wide range of economic, judicial and other concerns, though they only rarely focus directly on contentious political matters. Most were requests from individuals, both men and women, usually asking for judicial mercy, criminal prosecution, or poor relief. The remainder were from groups such as ‘the poore prisoners in Derby Goale’ who complained of a reduced ‘bare allowance’ for bread in 1680. In the eighteenth century, for the first time, imprisoned debtors began to submit petitions for release under the various Insolvent Debtors Acts and, from around the same time, Protestant Dissenters sought licences to establish meeting houses to worship outside the Church of England.

The petition of Nickolas Yeamondes, 1609. Image courtesy of the Staffordshire Record Office, Q/SR/108/70.

The petition of Nickolas Yeamandes of Staffordshire in 1609 offers an intriguing example of how these requests could potentially counteract the power of local elites. Yeamondes claims he had been imprisoned upon a malicious charge by his landlord, Roger Fowlke of Sutton Coldfield. Apparently Fowlke was using the judicial system to try to force Yeamandes to give up a lease. Yeamandes asks the county magistrates to hold a ‘hearing of the matter in contrevartie’, in the hope that he will be released as ‘ane honest man’. Of course he also promises that he, ‘his por wiffe and children’ will ‘pray for your healthes longe to continew’. Although the full story of this dispute remains to be explored, this document suggests that tenants and other vulnerable individuals might try to use petitioning to overcome the sharp imbalances of power in English society at this time.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more. We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now just dive into the sources:

[Note: Unfortunately the search interface on British History Online is currently not working correctly. To search, rather than browse, the petitions series, you can use google’s ‘inurl’ feature. Simply type inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” into the search bar, followed by the desired keyword. For example, inurl:”british-history.ac.uk/petitions” debt will return petitions including the word ‘debt’. Apologies for the inconvenience.]

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in this period, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

These volumes are truely a team effort. The volumes were edited by Brodie Waddell and transcribed by Tim Wales and Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to Derbyshire Record Office and Staffordshire Record Office who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.

The four published volumes are part of a series of seven planned volumes which will also include petitions to the City of Westminster, the House of Lords, and the Crown. We will announce the new volumes here as they appear.

Now Online: Hundreds of Petitions to Local Magistrates, c.1570-1700

Our first 572 full transcriptions of petitions from Elizabethan and Stuart England are now freely available to read and search at British History Online. One volume includes 297 requests and complaints submitted to the magistrates of Worcestershire and the second volume includes 275 sent to the magistrates of Cheshire. Although very few focus on the sort of conventional ‘political’ issues found in modern petitions, together they show a huge range of the grievances raised by ordinary people in a tumultuous historical period.

To take just one example, twenty-two inhabitants of Bayton in Worcestershire submitted a petition to the magistrates in 1666 asking them to ‘suppresse’ their neighbour, Daniel Roberts, from selling ale and beer. They complained that Roberts had ‘forged a certificate’, ‘tooke up armes against his majesty’ during the civil wars, and refused to attend church ‘to hear divine service and sermon’. Unsurprisingly, the vicar and churchwardens were among the many signatories. The petition appears to have been successful, because a clerk wrote ‘Suppressed by order of cort’ at the bottom of the page.

The petition of the inhabitants of Bayton, 1666. Photograph of the manuscript (left) and transcription on British History Online (right). Image courtesy of Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, Ref.110 BA1/1/108/91.

There were 17 other petitions relating to alehouses in the Worcestershire collection, including several supporting rather than opposing them, but these two volumes also include a vast variety of other types of petitions. Crime and punishment feature very prominently, accounting for nearly 160 of the petitions. Addressing poverty and poor relief is also a major concern, with dozens from both counties from paupers seeking parish pensions. You will also find many petitions relating to bastardy and paternal maintenance, the right to build cottages on ‘waste’ land, military pensions for veterans and war widows,  exception or imposition of local taxation and officeholding, and a very miscellaneous group of other matters. If you are interested in the social, cultural or legal history of this period, there is sure to be something that catches your eye in here.

Topics of the Worcestershire petitions, from the volume’s Introduction. The distribution in Cheshire was significantly different.

If you want to know more about petitioning in early modern England to better understand the context of these documents, you could start by reading our free ‘very short introduction’ and then move on to our ever-expanding annotated bibliography of published scholarship. Each volume also has an editorial introduction briefly reviewing who sent these petitions, the topics covered, their place in the archives, and more.

We will be publishing further guidance and advice on our Resources page, but for now you can just dive into the sources:

We would love to hear what you find! Remember that searching is currently by keyword only and spelling was very irregular in the seventeenth century, so you may need to experiment. We will eventually have a more advanced search facility.

These volumes are truely a team effort. They were edited by Sharon Howard (Cheshire) and Brodie Waddell (Worcestershire), and both were transcribed by Gavin Robinson. Preparing the texts for online publication on British History Online was completed by Jonathan Blaney and Kunika Kono of IHR Digital.

We are extremely grateful to Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service and Cheshire Archives and Local Studies who supported the creation of these new transcriptions. We highly encourage readers to take advantage of their extensive collections to pursue further research on the individuals and communities mentioned in the petitions, or to view the original manuscripts. We are also grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic History Society for their financial support, without which these would not have been possible.

These two volumes are merely the first in a series of seven planned volumes which will include two more counties (Derbyshire and Staffordshire), one city (Westminster), the House of Lords, and the Crown. For the counties and the city, we will also be adding eighteenth-century petitions. We will announce the new volumes here as they appear.

Gathering, transcribing, sorting and thinking: the first six months

In January, we officially began our project on ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’. The funding only runs for two years, so it seemed sensible to take stock after the first six months to see how we’re doing.

This is an exciting phase for a project like this, because we get to go out and grab a huge amount of interesting stuff but aren’t expected to have anything polished to show for it yet. It also includes lots of annoying admin and paperwork to get everything up and running, though we won’t bore you with the details of that somewhat less exhilarating part of the project.

Broadly, we’ve been busy with four main things…

Gathering

At the heart of this project are several large collections of manuscript petitions and associated records. We already had photographs of some material from pre-project work, namely about 800 petitions to the magistrates at the quarter sessions of Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Worcestershire, Kent and Sussex. Since starting, Sharon has collected hundreds of photographs of petitions to the Cheshire quarter sessions (c.600), the Chester City Assembly (c.150), the House of Lords (c.750), and the Crown (c.400). The London Metropolitan Archives have photographed about 130 to the Westminster quarter sessions. Brodie has photographed petitions to the quarter sessions of Hertfordshire (c.430) and a small sample from Devon (c.50). Jason has gathered a range of material about responses to petitions at the Huntington Library and the Parliamentary Archives. Thanks to this work, we now have photographs of well over 3,000 petitions to local and national authorities from c.1570 to 1800, as well as a selection of material about responses to some of these requests.

Transcribing

In order to turn these seventeenth-century manuscripts into something that can be read by non-experts and easily digitally searched, we are professionally transcribing a substantial selection of them. These will eventually be freely available at British History Online, with Gavin Robinson and Tim Wales working their way through the petitions to the magistrates of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Westminster and Worcestershire, and the petitions to the Crown from the State Papers at The National Archives. All of these are now complete (c.1400 items), so only the House of Lords collection (c.750) remains to be transcribed.

Sorting

Although hundreds of photographs and raw transcripts are a wonderful starting point, they become much more useable once they have been sorted and categorised in various ways. In some cases this can be partly done using the data from the archive catalogues, while in other cases they need to be directly read and labelled. In the process so far, Sharon and Brodie have focused on the nearly 2,000 quarter sessions petitions – including those from Sussex, Kent and Devon that are not being transcribed – attempting to assign them to eleven broad categories from ‘alehouses’ to ‘rates’. We’re also extracting key information about the petitioners: name, gender and ‘type’ (i.e. individual, group or institutional). In addition, we have started counting the number of signatories on each petition, though this isn’t yet finished.

There is still much more to be done on this part of the process, but the early results are already intriguing. When we throw together all the quarter sessions material into a single chart, we can see a very wide range of requests. The importance of litigation and poor relief is obvious, but many petitioners had other concerns, and the ‘other’ category was very miscellaneous indeed. That said, there were major variations depending on the county and the period, so you shouldn’t take this first glance at the data as an academically rigorous analysis.

Thinking

All three of us have been lucky enough to not have any departmental teaching or admin duties during this first six months of the project. We have, therefore, had a chance to catch our breath and think about petitioning in its widest sense.

Part of this has come from going along to events in Lisbon, Birkbeck, KCL and Oxford. This has encouraged us to think about how petitions work in other contexts – including other periods and places – and how they relate to other forms of narrative, memory and protest. Discussions with colleagues at these events has allowed us to get a sense of how our sources and ideas fit into the wider historical and historiographical landscape.

During this period of reflection, one thing we realised early on is that we’d benefit from knowing more about what happens to local petitioning in the eighteenth century. Brodie and Sharon thus decided to put in a bid for a small grant to the Economic History Society to gather and transcribe a selection of material from our current quarter sessions series for this later period, which was fortunately successful. We’ll start this part of the project in September.

Finally, we’ve also been attempting to get some of our early thoughts written down. It has been illuminating to present some of our preliminary work at various events and write up short pieces such as an annotated bibliography and a short introduction to different types of petitions. We’ve also been posting some our finds on twitter at #PowerOfPetitioning. This has not only sparked fruitful discussion with other historians in person and online, but it also helped us identify our current blind spots.

We have a lot more work to do, yet having six months to focus directly on our project and to set up some of the practical stuff means that we’re ready to take our next steps. We’ll soon be able to offer the initial fruits of our research, so look out for the first sets of transcriptions to go online in the autumn.

The Power of Petitioning … in Eighteenth-Century England

Brodie Waddell and Sharon Howard

In eighteenth-century England, ordinary people regularly petitioned county and city magistrates about personal calamities or local problems. These requests survive in huge numbers in local archives, including nearly ten thousand for London alone. Analysing such petitions allows us to better understand social relations, economic hardship and the role of the state in this period as well as the outlook and circumstances of people who lacked any official authority of their own. Which issues drove people to complain? How did they frame their requests? How did such petitioning vary by geography, chronology, gender and social status?

We’re very pleased to announce that we have just been jointly awarded an Economic History Society Carnevali Small Research Grant of nearly £3,000 to gather material to help to answer these questions.  This new research will photograph, transcribe and analyse a substantial selection of eighteenth-century petitions, building on Brodie and Sharon’s current projects, namely ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’ (c.1580-1700) and ‘The London Lives Petitions Project’ (c.1690-1800). Both these projects are creating or using large collections of transcribed manuscripts to undertake quantitative analysis of petitioning. However, comparing material from these projects to draw broader conclusions is currently impossible because they cover different chronologies and jurisdictions. This grant from the Economic History Society will enable us to bridge this divide by collecting, transcribing and analysing six key collections that will link these two projects, and so create a diverse publicly-available corpus of petitions stretching across more than two centuries.

For social and economic historians, this research will provide a wide-ranging survey of the challenges and hardships faced by people of all ranks while also illuminating the determined reactions they provoked. Preliminary research suggests that the most common petitions to local magistrates were appeals for temporary aid or long-term poor relief, allowing glimpses of material hardship from a variety of different perspectives: labourers afflicted by old age or disabilities, families suffering the loss of a bread-winner, householders rendered homeless by fire or flood, traders facing insurmountable debts, and many other victims of sudden immiseration.

Yet, while this type of petition is both valuable and numerous, it is hardly the only form available for examination. Others illuminate problems associated with early modern trade and labour practices such as the pleas from imprisoned debtors seeking freedom, from workers desperate for unpaid wages, and from apprentices seeking to be released from failed or abusive masters. Moreover, many petitions came from organised groups rather than from isolated individuals. Collective requests from whole parishes frequently asked for the expulsion of poor migrants, for relief from taxation or for funds to maintain local roads and bridges. Examining a broad selection of these documents will provide insight into the nature of local economic and social problems in this period.

For scholars studying the history of England’s state structure, the project will reveal one of the primary ways in which ordinary people addressed and shaped these developing institutions. Specifically, it will offer an alternative perspective on the nature of state authority in the localities. Current understandings of formal power structures in eighteenth-century England have been drawn primarily from the writings of theorists or officeholders. In contrast, petitions provide a view of authority ‘from below’.

The petitions sent to local magistrates in the eighteenth century represent immensely valuable source material for historians of social and economic history. Although several scholars have already used them to examine specific issues in particular jurisdictions, the Economic History Society grant will enable us to undertake the first methodical analysis of these sources over a broad geographical and chronological range. It will substantially enhance the benefits of our existing separate projects while also creating an online resource that will offer a new perspective on eighteenth-century England for all interested researchers.

Kidderminster petition about poor rate, 1725
The petition of the inhabitants of Kidderminster in 1725, complaining of ‘the charge of the Poor’ and ‘great Inequality’ in rates, asking for a new assessment, signed by 46 men: Worcestershire Archives, 1/1/273/17.

Our Plans

This grant will fund the costs of photographing and transcribing more than 400 petitions from six different jurisdictions, with collections chosen to align with the data created by the two other projects and taking full advantage of existing material. Specifically, this will include the quarter sessions of Cheshire, Derbyshire, Hertfordshire, Staffordshire, Westminster, and Worcestershire. Gavin Robinson, who is currently working on our AHRC project, will undertake the transcriptions. It is on a much smaller scale than the AHRC project, so it will simply run alongside it in 2019-20.

The grant will also include the cost of partnering with the IHR Digital team to add these texts to the online editions of transcriptions being created for the AHRC-funded project, which will be published on British History Online. Using XML mark-up, the transcriptions will be easily searched or analysed by date, people, place and gender. The full texts will also enable Natural Language Processing to track textual patterns. Moreover, integrating the transcriptions into British History Online will ensure their discoverability and sustainability. Existing users of this well-known platform – which received two million unique visitors in 2017 – will be able to seamlessly search the whole corpus alongside the 1,289 volumes of historical material already on the site. With the combined support of the AHRC and the Economic History Society, we will create an entirely free digital resource which will make publicly available full transcriptions of approximately 2,500 petitions from c.1580 to c.1800 for use by researchers, students, teachers and others.

We’ll provide updates on our progress on The Power of Petitioning blog and on twitter via #PowerOfPetitioning. Please get in touch if this is something you’re interested in, as we are always keen to collaborate!