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Traces of lives: verbal resistance

2013 August 22
bethnal green

extract from Bethnal Green rough examination book

I’ve been working on my keynote presentation for the forthcoming public history conference at the University of Central Lancashire in September. It’s an opportunity to discuss a number of examples of people making their own histories and the traces of material that exist in the present.

One of such traces will be a few lines I came across several years ago in the London Metropolitan Archives. These were from a nineteenth century rough examination book of the workhouse in Bethnal Green. Essentially people were asked a number of questions to ascertain their eligibility for poor relief. Then, as now, the authorities were anxious to ensure that a claimant had a connection to that particular area through residency – and the paying of rent of a certain level. They were often questioned about apprenticeships since these were legal undertakings that provided information on residency.  Although such records do not exist in all localities they can be invaluable for family historians.

Some might interpret the information almost as a potted autobiography. However, the person seeking support is never in control of the questions. He or she is merely required to respond to the questions asked and give (the right) answers. The questions are not stated as such but are implicit in the claimant’s response. While such a narrative might give glimpses of ordinary people’s lives it is not a narrative of their own making.

But the short narrative of Charlotte Moss, a single woman aged 60, is rather different. The examiner records her resistance, ‘Shant answer any more questions!’ before recording his own feelings on the matter ‘Great Impertinence!’

She probably didn’t get assistance but her resistance is surely a tonic to us all across the centuries.

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