PRESS RELEASE: Winner of the 2020 Janette Harley Prize announced

The British Records Association is delighted to announce that the winner of the 2020 Janette Harley Prize is  Steven King for his book Writing the Lives of the English Poor 1750s-1830s (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019). 

“King has analysed around 25,000 pauper letters, written requests for relief sent to parish officers in England and Wales by those who were out of their settled parish when they fell into need. Such letters ‘exist in almost every archive but have remained essentially intractable. Only by finding, putting together, and interpreting the myriad small collections of letters can we recognise the existence of a national collection hiding in plain sight.’ King has also studied the letters sent on paupers’ behalf by sponsors or advocates, often themselves parish officers, and the replies by the parishes.

Economic changes meant that from c1750 more and more overseers’ business was devoted to paupers who lived out-parish, often many miles away, for whom the parish was still legally responsible. King shows that descriptions of the Old Poor Law taken from removal orders and overseers’ accounts are incomplete and misleading. It is not true that ‘the poor were, and were supposed to be, humble, deferential and grateful’. On the contrary, the poor never lost their legitimacy in the eyes of ratepayers. Anyone could fall on hard times. The Poor Law was accepted by all to be ‘malleable at the local level’, a world of negotiation and persistence, with understanding and tolerance on both sides, and official responses which mostly tended towards support. Parish officers were under no legal obligation to reply to pauper letters, but felt morally obliged to do so.

King also provides a framework for understanding these sources, by examining the workings of the poor law system. For example, how did paupers find pen and paper? Did they know how to write, or did they need help? How did they know what to say? Where did their wording come from? How did they get their letters delivered? How did they ensure that any reply would reach them? Why did parish officers tolerate embellishment and exaggeration? Why did they feel obliged to reply? How did they send money?

King transforms our understanding of an area of civil administration and the archive which it generated which we thought we understood. This is a book that every local and family historian ought to read.”

(The judges of the Janette Harley Prize)


Three further entries for the prize were highly commended: Martha Carlin for ‘Chronology of John Gower’s Life Records’ and ‘Gower’s Life’ in Historians on John Gower, edited by Stephen H. Rigby with Siân Echard (John Gower Society XII, Woodbridge, 2019); Paul J. Sillitoe, for ‘Bridgewater Boat Building at Bangor-on-Dee: Parts 1 and 2’, in Waterways Journal 21-22 (2019, 2020); and Professor Andrew Hopper, Leicester University, on behalf of the Civil War Petitions Project Team for the blog series published on the project website,

The prize was established in memory of Janette Harley, a member of the British Records Association, who died in 2015. It is intended to raise awareness of research and achievements in the world of archives, and is awarded for the best, or most original piece of published work which reflects the aims of the Association: to promote the preservation, understanding, accessibility and study of our recorded heritage for the public benefit.

A call for entries to next year’s Janette Harley Prize will be made in April 2021.

Notes for Editors: The British Records Association is a charity which aims to promote the preservation, understanding, accessibility and study of our recorded heritage for the public benefit. It is open to anyone interested in records and archives.