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…


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.


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.


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.


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!

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

Gender, institutions and the changing uses of petitions in 18th-century London

Although our project is currently focused primarily on the seventeenth-century, one of the project team – Sharon Howard – is also undertaking her own research on eighteenth-century petitioning using material digitised by the London Lives project. In a new post on her blog, she presents some of her most recent analysis of ‘when and why petitioning mattered’ for the ordinary people of the metropolis.

Using the 10,000 petitions sent to London’s local magistrates between 1690 and 1800, she shows this sort of ‘everyday’ petitioning was far from static and unchanging across the period. Instead, there seem to have been spikes in petitioning in particular decades, a long-term decline in petitioning per capita, and a shift in the types of petitioners. Specifically, the proportion of women petitioners declined dramatically, the proportion of individual male petitioners declined more moderately, and the proportion of institutional petitioners – such as parishes – increased substantially.

Read the whole post on ‘Gender, institutions and the changing uses of petitions in 18th-century London’ to find out more, but the key lesson is that analysing 10,000 petitions across 110 years shows that even ‘prosaic’ petitioning changed remarkably.


The Long Road to a New Project

‘The Power of Petitioning’ officially began as an AHRC-funded project in January 2019, but it has a long ‘pre-history’. In an earlier post on the Many-Headed Monster history blog, Brodie Waddell explains how the project came to be. He also discusses some of the lessons he learned while putting together the application and includes a link to the full text of the funding proposal which might be useful for other people seeking external support.

Here you can read his full post on ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England: The Long Road to a New Project’.

Blogging the Power of Petitioning

Welcome to the blog of ‘The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England’, a two-year project funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council which began in January 2019.

We will to use this space to publish a wide range of information about the history of petitioning and various aspects of the project itself. There are already several planned posts which will appear soon, including a very short introduction to petitioning in early modern England and an annotated bibliography of key scholarship on this topic. We will also be blogging about some of the petitions we come across in our research, reviews of new scholarship, and guides to further research.

In the meantime, you can use this site to learn more about the project team, our partners and funders, our publications and events, and the substantial number of online resources for researching petitions.

You can also find hundreds of micro-posts about the history of petitioning on twitter using our project tag: #PowerOfPetitioning.

And, just to whet your appetite, here is the full title page from which we took our header image: The Humble Petition of Jock of Bread, Scotland (1648). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.