Letters, complaints, petitions, and advertisements, c. 1700-1900

The seminar focuses on using historical source material to disclose the histories of ordinary – and sometimes marginalized – people and how such sources represent lives, actions, norms, and places.

Among others, we have invited Professor Steven A. King (Nottingham Trent University, UK), who, in 2019, published the book Writing the Lives of the English Poor, 1750s-1830s, based on more than 25,000 pauper letters from England and Wales. In the book, which is the result of over 30 years of study, King shows how the poor negotiated their situation when writing to the poor law authorities.


9:30 - 10:30

A Voice that had to be heard: letters, complaints and petitions by the British poor 1750 to 1910
Steven A. King, Professor of Economics and Social History, Nottingham Trent University, UK
10:30 - 11:00 Coffee

11:00 - 12:00

Political Participation for the Politically Excluded
Anne Engelst Nørgaard, Associate Professor, NTNU, Norway
12:00 - 13:30 Lunch
13:30 - 14:30 Carceral Copenhagen
Johan Heinsen, Associate Professor, Aalborg University, Denmark
14:30 - 15:00 Coffee
15:00 - 16:00 Complaining in Eighteenth-Century Copenhagen
Ulrik Langen, Professor, University of Copenhagen, Peter Wessel Hansen, Archivist, Copenhagen City Archives & Louise Villefrance Perner, postdoc, University of Copenhagen
16:00 - 16:30 General discussion and concluding remarks.


A Voice that had to be heard: letters, complaints and petitions by the British poor 1750 to 1910

This paper represents a first attempt to bring together all of my work on pauper writing for the periods of the Old Poor Law (1601-1834) and New Poor Law (1834-1929). I have (with others) considered these sources for England and Wales (both of which were joined together for welfare administration purposes) across four books (see below). In essence, my argument has been that because British welfare payments were the outcome of a tri-partite negotiation between pauper-official-ratepayer the letters, petitions, and complaints by the poor that I study were documents that had to be read and responded to. This does not mean all officials acted well, but that there was an expectation of reception and action, and that the poor more widely thus sought in writing and rhetoric to contest their place in a welfare system that notionally afforded them now power. Until now, however, I have not for England and Wales traced how the structure, content and rhetoric of this material changes over time either at country level or according to criteria such as urban versus rural settlements. Even more importantly, I have not fused these perspectives on England and Wales with analysis of material in Scotland, even though I have it. Scotland had a completely different welfare system to England and Wales to 1845 and (arguably) even to 1929. But the poor wrote here too and in huge numbers. This paper then asks for the very first time how the nature and impact of complaining changes over time in the three nations that make up the British mainland.  

S. A. King, P. Carter, P. Jones, N. Carter and C. Beardmore, In Their Own Write: A New Poor Law History From Below (Montreal, 2022). Winner of the 2022 North American Victorian Studies Association Best Book of 2022 Prize. Winner of the American Historical Association Morris D. Forkosch Prize 2023

P. Jones and S. A. King, Pauper Voices, Public Opinion and Workhouse Reform in Mid-Victorian England – Bearing Witness (Basingstoke, 2020)

S. A. King, Writing the Lives of the English Poor, 1750s-1830s (London, 2019); Winner of the 2019 British Academy Peter Townsend Prize and the 2020 British Records Association Janette Harley Prize.

S. A. King, Sickness, Medical Welfare and the English Poor 1750-1834 (Manchester, 2018)

Political Participation for the Politically Excluded

This paper will ask how we can use petitions and petitioning practices to investigate political culture during the long 19th century. The paper will discuss Danish and Norwegian petitions and petitioning practices. It will ask how the end of absolutism and the development of a representative political culture affected petitioning practices. I will argue that petitioning became a popular form of political participation for politically excluded groups and posed an opportunity to experiment with political communication, mobilization, and organization. The paper will discuss the promise (and possible limitations) of using petitions as political texts that give us access to the political thinking of people, who didn’t belong to the politically included groups and are often overlooked in the historiography.

Carceral Copenhagen

The project Carceral Copenhagen documents experiences of coercion in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Denmark, focusing mainly on Copenhagen. Initially, the project started working from prison registers, but has now entered a new phase where the main focus is on newspapers and knowledge circulation. The paper will focus on the use of newspapers to advertise runaway workers and present an analysis of 8000 runaway advertisements from Copenhagen’s primary advertisement paper. The material runs from 1762 to around 1840, but the genre peaked in the final decades of the eighteenth century. 

Complaining in Eighteenth-Century Copenhagen

Copenhagen Complains is the first-ever systematic investigation of popular complaining as a decisive factor in the making and changing of urban order in eighteenth-century Europe. During the last 18 months, we have been working on generating and preparing a comprehensive dataset allowing us to combine social history methods with a study of rhetorical and linguistic patterns in this rich but seriously understudied material, enabling us to present new knowledge on eighteenth-century urban experiences and living conditions. In this work-in-progress paper, we will primarily discuss methodological and conceptual matters as well as present some examples of our findings so far. Why did Copenhageners complain, and what did they expect to get out of it? What did people complain about, and what were the chronological trends in this culture of complaint?

Practical information


We only have room for a very limited number of participants.

Please register by sending an email to Ulrik Langen.