“Begging Letters” in 19th Century England, by Regina Jeffers

“Begging Letters” in 19th Century England, by Regina Jeffers

We have all received those letters and emails requesting money or asking someone to invest in a scheme. Here is one of the recent ones I received, which is addressed to “Dear Sir.”

OOPS!!! Obviously, my gmail account sent the request to the spam folder. 

Dear sir,i m so sorry please dont mind that i trouble you but its my real problem
             My name is Mrs Rehana Kishwar Naaz, I am a Pakistani and live in district of Sialkot. Sir I am very poor. There is no source of income to fulfil the demand of my family. We are eight members of family. My husband is mad. He is absent of mind he cannot do any work as a normal person. I am very worried about my children. 
My children want to get EDUCATION but I cannot afford the expenditure of education. Dear sir you know well that education is the key of success and it is very important for the success of a nation. I wish my children gets education and become a gentle man.
I live in rent house and I am a home maid. I cannot explain how I am tense and worried about my family. I send this request to many institute of Pakistan but they cannot help me because I am a Christen.
Sir you are my last option. I hope you never feel me alone. Sir please give me response as soon as possible .it is the matter of my children education.
I am very thankful to you because you give me your precious time to read my request. I always remember you in my prayers.
dear sir its my request that please help me personally                                                                                                                                                                  thank you
But what of “begging letters” in history? Before the time of the internet? 


26219755_872464219581158_8878255547945133430_n Alan Taylor at the British History Georgian Lives Facebook group recently posted, “Begging letters were often written in the 18th and 19th Century. Sometimes the author was trying his luck with the vulnerable – as some charities today badger the elderly with requests for donations. Other letters were written by the ‘down and out’ to relations, authorities or creditors begging for help. I have a letter of the latter type written by Elizabeth Perry in 1757 from Hanslope in Buckinghamshire to a Francis Walker to whom she owed money. She could not pay the debt and ‘must rely upon your goodness as an excuse’. The tragic tale enfolds ‘my husband has been these two years past…miserably afflicted with the dropsy (a heart condition)’ and so apparently was unable to work. According to records he was a malster (making malt from grain in the brewing industry) but there was also another misfortune for the family as Elizabeth states ‘if it had not been for the loss of our cattle we would not be the humble supplicants now’. This was a double whammy as many artisans of the period would have kept a few animals to supplement their income in hard times. There seemed no way Elizabeth could pay the debt as she had even tried ‘selling all our goods’ but ‘will not near raise the money’ – she was even willing to sell their furniture and other household goods leaving them with nothing, but realised this would not be enough. The only possible end to this was what she dreaded most ‘we must fling ourselves entirely on the parish & become a burden to that place in which we have formerly lived so well’. This outcome was not only a future life of poverty but also a great blow to the pride and reputation of the family! 

“I do not know if Mr Walker was sympathetic to their situation, but online research revealed Mr Perry died the next year, and in his will, there was a section leaving ‘goods, chattels and furniture’ to Elizabeth after the payment of a Bill of Sale…to the Reverend Moses Agar and John Downing’. My interpretation of this statement is these two Samaritans had bought the furniture, etc., in order for Elizabeth to pay off at least some of her debts but allowed her temporarily to keep it. Further the Northampton Mercury for June 1758 states; ‘to be sold – A malting and orchard…in Hanslope…late belonging to John Perry’. It seems probable that once this was sold, Elizabeth would have been able to pay off the rest of her debts, but I am not sure what happened afterwards, although there is a record of the burial of an Elizabeth Perry (pauper) in Hanslope for Dec 1759. The photo shows the church of St James the Great whose vicar, Moses Agar, helped Elizabeth in her distress and possibly buried her as a pauper!”

c102100001.jpgThe State Library of New South Wales has a collection of Begging Letters Received by Banks from Various Persons 1786 – 1808.  Purchased in 1884 from Lord Brabourne by Sir Saul Samuel, the Agent-General for New South Wales, the letters were later transferred to the Mitchell Library in 1910 as part of the Brabourne Collection. Sir Joseph Banks was the recipient of many letters requesting financial support, or his support in obtaining a position or promotion. [You can view the series at this Link: https://transcripts.sl.nsw.gov.au/section/series-76-begging-letters-received-banks-various-persons-1786-1808-1884-undated ]


The Jot101 blog shares a begging letter from a debtor in prison. The blog piece goes on to say: “This particular letter is from someone who signs himself M. Eurius Beaubrier, and is addressed to a Henry Clarke. Although preliminary research has revealed nothing of the writer, who may have been French, the handwriting is that of an educated man and the tone is rather pathetic. The letter suggests both he and Clarke, who is also hard to identify, had dealings before.

“The plea for help comes from the King’s Bench prison in Southwark and is dated 20th July 1827. The tone is pretty desperate:

“‘More than three months have elapsed since first I entered these walls–& God knows what have been my sufferings during that time. I have settled two of the actions against me & I can obtain my discharge on the last for about five pounds. I shall trespass on your friendship once more & for the last time & shall beg of you to lend me the amount which I shall faithfully repay with what you had the kindness to advance me already. I shall be indebted to you for my liberty, which I have learned to appreciate after so long a confinement.
I hope that the country air has been beneficial to you and that you are recovered from your late illness. Mrs Beaubrier writes to say that they have received letters from Sir William Congreve & that he finds himself much better.
I remain,
dear Sir,
your ever grateful,
M. Eurius Beaubrier’”


800px-Householdwordsvol2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_Words#/media/File:Householdwordsvol2.jpg ” data-medium-file=”https://reginajeffers.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/800px-householdwordsvol2.jpg?w=178″ data-large-file=”https://reginajeffers.files.wordpress.com/2018/10/800px-householdwordsvol2.jpg?w=609″>


The May 1850 edition of  Household Words contained an article entitled The Begging-Letter Writer written by Charles Dickens.  Household Words was an English weekly magazine edited by Dickens in the 1850s. It took its name from the line in Shakespeare’s Henry V:  “Familiar in his mouth as household words.” In the article Dickens describes examples of the many begging letters he had received over the years, and the ruses employed by their writers to gain funds from the recipients.

A recent collection of “Begging Letters” has been published. They were written over 200 years ago by desperate families living in poverty. There are some 600 letters in the collection representing letters sent between 1809 and 1836 to their home parish in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria. They are considered one of the largest existing Old English Poor Law applicant collections. The British Academy has extensive records of Social and Economic History

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-cumbria-55440158 ~ BRITISH ACADEMY
~ A letter written on Christmas Day, 1816, asking the Kirkby Lonsdale parish for help with rent during “very bad” times


BBC News ran a recent article on this collection, including some samples of the pleas for assistance:

“One, written on 26 December, 1816 by Betty Langhorn in Lancaster, referred to times being ‘so very hard’ and that her children were ‘nearly naked, for want of clothes’ because she had no work. “I hope you will remember me again this Christmas,” she wrote, adding: “so I beg you will be so good as (to) send me a little relief”.

Another was written on Christmas Day, 1816, by Richard Garlick, living in Chatburn, Lancashire, who wrote that times were “so very bad” he could not afford his rent and his landlord may sell his possessions.

One must remember that these letters were what we would nowadays think of those applying for assistance at one’s local Department of Human Services facility, rather than to the local parish for assistance. The local DHS facility is where I spend my extra time as a volunteer wherever needed: Operation Christmas Child, Back-to-School Supplies, elderly care, homes for those moving out of foster care, taking applications for assistance after a flood or some other sort of disaster, etc. That is where I can often be found. Taking applications. Delivering meals to seniors (some younger than my 73 years). Separating gifts for children in need. 

Other Sources: 

Among the English Poor 

A Begging Letter from Debtor’s Prison

A History of Vagrants and Vagrancy, Beggars and Begging

Letters of the Catholic Poor: Poverty in Independent Ireland

The Power of Petitioning in 17th Century England

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August 23, 2021 10:05 AM

The soliciting emails we occasionally receive have gotten far more sophisticated, and leave me with one question: How can you afford a computer or smart phone if you have no money for food, clothing etc?

If, as one is given to understand, in Jane’s time everybody knew who was wealthy — and to what extent — I do not doubt that wealthier people received both legitimate and scam requests just as some “beggars” target today’s celebrities. And in Jane’s time, wasn’t postage paid by the recipient? This would make it easier to mail both legitimate and scam requests, so long as one could afford, or appropriate, paper, pen, and ink. Weren’t these items costly? So again, how could the impoverished afford them but not food, clothing, etc?

I may be mistaken but as I read these “begging” letters they seem to focus on immediate aid, which even today is not so easy to obtain from government sources — you mention “taking applications,” but what about people who need immediate help? In Jane’s time perhaps churches would provide more immediate aid, but perhaps not to the extent needed for some people. A few years ago, when we could, we helped out a divorced friend with three children, who was collecting government and church assistance, when she ran into trouble paying for unexpected expenses such as healthcare or car repair. (She is in better financial shape now and she “pays it forward” through her church.) In any case I would hate to be in the desperate position of a widow, spinster, or orphan of those times and have no regular source of legitimate income and no prospects except dependency on the good will of others, and having to resort to the humiliation of begging. I find the samples above from 1816 particularly sad — 1816, “the year without a summer,” was no doubt especially difficult for those in need.

One benefit of receiving a handwritten request is being able to analyze the handwriting to get a picture of the author and whether they are honest or dishonest. (No, I have not analyzed the writing on these samples; it would be a meaningless exercise without the originals.)

A very interesting piece, Regina. As so many of your writings do, it sends me off to do even more research.

August 11, 2021 5:08 PM

I didn’t know that begging letters existed back then. I wonder how many of them were scams. I don’t know but my impression is that most might be legitimate back then.

August 10, 2021 4:54 AM

I am pretty skeptical of these types unsolicited emails, but somehow the historical ones seem more legitimate. Maybe I’d feel differently if I was living back then. I wonder if these are the precursor to chain letters and how the success rate of chain letters compares to the success rate of begging letters.

cindie snyder
cindie snyder
August 9, 2021 7:17 AM

We have done Samaritan’s purse at our church as well as collecting school supplies. I have also gotten spam letters too! Drives me crazy!

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