Early modern borders

A 1686 petition from the ‘inhabitants’ of Boothstown, a hamlet in the township of Worsley (now in the city of Salford), complained about an ‘idle loose fellow come into our hammell that goes by the name of Shropshire Tom’. Tom was ‘harboured by’ two local men who ‘sometimes imploy him in worke’. But when he was not working for them, ‘he idles about and doth not follow a Certaine imploy for his lively hood but if he be spoken to begins to be heady and give bad language’. ‘We have’, the petitioners declared, ‘noe need of Any such person Amongst us’. The quarter sessions bench ordered that he was to be sent to a house of correction if he did not leave Boothstown within the next ten days. [1]

At the next quarter sessions, Tom himself petitioned the bench. His name was Thomas Haldren, he informed the court; he was ‘by birth a Shropshireman, but upon the account of visiting a relation which he had in Lancashire came into the Cuntry’ in 1684. He had found employment during this stay, and worked intermittently in the area ever since: with a man named Richard Farnworth in Boothstown for a fortnight; then with Richard’s brother for seven weeks; with a man in Astley for another three weeks; and from May 1685 to Christmas with a man in neighbouring Boothsbank. He was now ‘hired by the weekes & lives with one Geofrey Partington in the Boothstown’. He had been ‘advised in strictness’ that his legal settlement was in Boothstown, but the township didn’t need to worry, for he was ‘a hard painefull workeman a Single man and no way like to be chargeable to any’.

Thomas did not just describe himself differently from the earlier petitioners: he called their right to speak for the local community into question. ‘Many of the Inhabitants of Boothstowne’, he argued, ‘as by the Certificate underwritten may appear were no way privie nor consenting to such a peticion’. The ‘Certificate’ is torn, so we can’t know how many people signed, but we do know what they were signing to say: that he was, in their opinion, ‘an honest labouriouse man’. [2] This case underlines the vulnerability of casual labourers under the settlement laws, and how hostile established residents could be to migrant workers. But it also points to two other things which I am especially interested in: conflicting attitudes about whether one migrant labourer was ‘idle’ or ‘honest’, and the participatory nature of what we might think of as early modern border control.



Keith Snell has argued that ‘local xenophobia was assuredly one of the root features in the attitudes and cultures of labouring people in the past’. [3] A rising proportion of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century rural people married within their own parish, and Snell describes marked hostility towards men from elsewhere who tried to court local women. [4] Men from different parishes could be hostile to one another more generally, and fights broke out during ‘perambulations’ (walking the bounds of the parish). [5] Snell pays particular attention to the stereotypes and proverbs about people from other parishes described by nineteenth and twentieth-century folklorists, which supposedly stretched back to the early modern period. [6]

But if parochial prejudice was enduring, it was not static. Rising pressure on parish resources from the late eighteenth century, ‘Napoleonic wartime pressures and anti-foreigner rhetoric’, and the early nineteenth-century agricultural depression probably led to ‘inter-parochial rivalries and forms of exclusion intensifying over this period’. The settlement laws, Snell argues, also encouraged animosity: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century commentators blamed them for stoking ‘ill feeling’ and ‘hostile divisions’ between parishes. [7] Did settlement disputes really reflect local opinion, though? In April 1777, the vicar of Ponteland (Northumberland) recorded in his diary that:

There were £6 & 5 1/2collected in the Church for Jane Doncaster Widow; which is to assist in her maintenance ‘till there can a Parish be found for her; which I apprehend, after the best enquiry will be found to be this.

Her ‘Grandson in Law’, he added, had offered to maintain her at the parish charge. [8] Like Thomas Haldren, Jane had local relations even if she was not local herself: this obviously complicates the question of whether she was viewed as an insider or an outsider. It’s likely that the death of her husband had raised her settlement as an issue. Nonetheless, this entry suggests that ‘enquiry’ about which parish someone belonged to did not necessarily reflect hostility towards them. Settlement disputes happened when the line between belonging and not belonging was contested. In these circumstances, it seems unlikely that local opinion always corresponded to whichever option saved the parish most money.

Richard Gough’s 1701 History of Myddle is suggestive about what settlement meant for the parish elite. While Gough proudly detailed the cases which he had helped Myddle to win, he presented them as a triumph for parish government rather than parishioners in general. In fact, he reserved his greatest ire for a local family which he disapproved of. Elizabeth Gittins, ‘an idle, wanton wrench’ born in Myddle, had prompted two settlement cases by marrying a ‘drunken Cobler’ from Condover. After describing the moral failings of their children, Gough insisted that

most of the cause of all this came from the mother, who brought up her Children in idlenesse, and favoured them in theire bad courses; and it is noe marvel that shee was noe better, for her mother Sina Davis and her Children have for many years been a charge to us. Shee, viz. Sina Davis was a crafty, idle, dissembleing woman. [9]

Petitions seeking the removal of migrant workers were authored by ‘inhabitants’ – drawn from the higher ranks of local society – or parish officers (churchwardens and overseers of the poor). Poor petitioners, in contrast, pleaded that they hadn’t been paid wages for work they had done and might be pushed into destitution, or that the person they were supposedly lodging with had been charged with ‘harbouring’ and kicked them out. [10] Greater popular participation is described in churchwardens’ accounts, which record a range of people being drafted in to help police parochial boundaries. In the London parish which I studied in my undergraduate dissertation, male paupers were employed as ‘warders’, patrolling the parish and expelling strangers. [11] This was in the seventeenth century, but parishioners in eighteenth-century Morpeth (Northumberland) were still being paid to help remove the unwanted poor. The construction of a workhouse in 1750 didn’t replace these older patterns of inclusion and exclusion: one woman ‘went into the Poor House’ in 1754, but had her ‘Lying In and Removal’ recorded the next year. [12]

People engaged with early modern borders in a variety of ways. A young man who started a fight at a parish perambulation and a pauper who served as warder were perhaps both practising ‘local xenophobia’, but they were doing this in ways which reflected different relationships to the parish as an institution and unit of identity. Snell’s suggestion that the Napoleonic wars strengthened parochial prejudice is interesting: the relationship between identification with nation/empire/race and local identity is something which I’d love to read more about (suggestions welcome). But in my sources, local relationships rather than generalised grievances seem to take precedence.



In sources which aren’t specifically concerned with settlement, migration appears only indirectly. I’ve noticed it most in sources from Newcastle, where a significant Scottish population was – according to Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton – taken for granted by my period. [13] In 1663, one woman defamed another by claiming that her mother had been burned as a witch (only possible in Scotland, and directed at someone with a Scottish surname); in 1738, Jane Moor was asked if it was true that she had been whipped through Aberdeen for stealing silver spoons. Both conversations took place on Newcastle’s quayside, and both defamees were defended by other local women. [14] When Mary Murrow (another Scottish surname) stole clothes from a woman in North Shields in 1745, she left them with a woman who she told that ‘she was going to Scotland and desired [to] take care of them till she came back again’. [15]

Geographical knowledge probably varied from person to person, and one witness in Jane Moor’s case talked about ‘some Town in Scotland’ rather than Aberdeen. [16] But even in these suits for slander and theft, foreignness comes across as more incidental than incriminating. James Oliphant, who I’ve previously written about, moved back to his native Scotland when his house in Newcastle was destroyed by a flood – yet his lengthy rant about how much he was hated locally did not mention his Scottish origins. While the desire to exclude undesirable people does feature in my sources, it corresponds to neither exclusionary local identity nor the enforcement of parochial boundaries. When Jane Hardy was reminded that Thomas Dunn, who she claimed had stolen sheep from two men she knew,

had taken a House to Live in Butterwick Aye says Jane Hardy I am Sorry for it for He is as Great a Rogue as any is in the Countrey & the Scum of the Country. [17]

Later that year (1738) on Newcastle’s quayside, William Douglas told Peter Smith that he was ‘a Rogue & Sayd he would make the said Peter Smith Run his Country’. [18] And in West Rainton (Durham) in 1782, one banksman’s wife said about another, ‘Why don’t they put that Whore out of the Town?’ [19] (A banksman was someone who stood at the bank of a pit and loaded the coal into a wagon.) Snell argues that local xenophobia inhibited the unity of what was, by the end of the period he is writing about, described as a ‘working class’. [20] But the records of neighbourly litigation – including quarter sessions petitions against abusive neighbours – suggest that the (contested) distinction between honest and dishonest people was a more significant check on solidarity. Eighteenth-century northerners did not believe that all their neighbours were honest and all migrants were dishonest. The practices of exclusion invoked in early modern testimony were not those set down by the laws of settlement.



[1] Lancashire Archives, QSP 617/13.

[2] Lancashire Archives, QSP 618/4.

[3] Keith Snell, ‘The culture of local xenophobia’, Social History 28:1 (2003), 3.

[4] Ibid, 20-21.

[5] Ibid, 8, 17-18.

[6] Ibid, 9-14.

[7] Ibid, 23-6.

[8] Woodhorn Archives, ZBK/C/1/A/2/18.

[9] Richard Gough, The History of Myddle, ed. David Hey (London, 1981), 256-8.

[10] Lancashire Archives, QSP 36/3, QSP 36/9, QSP 36/20, QSP 183/15 (in which five families were left homeless after their landlord was indicted for harbouring); London Metropolitan Archives, WJ/SP/1640/6, WJ/SP/1645/11, WJ/SP/1645/12, WSP/1691/7/2.

[11] Edwin Freshfield, ed., The Vestry Minute Books of the Parish of St. Bartholomew Exchange, Vol. 1, (London, 1890), 63.

[12] Woodhorn Archives, EP 28/87.

[13] Gwenda Morgan & Peter Rushton, Rogues, Thieves and the Rule of Law: The Problem of Law Enforcement in Northeast England (London, 1998), 10.

[14] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/2, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/9.

[15] National Archives, ASSI 45/23/1, 56Q.

[16] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/9/6.

[17] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/2/3.

[18] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1738/13/1.

[19] Durham University Library, DDR/EJ/CCD/3/1782/5/6.

[20] Snell, ‘Local xenophobia’, 3-4.


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