Loughborough Parish Library (2): poor rates and bookplates

26 May 2023

It was 1761 when the new Rector James Bickham arrived at Loughborough with his luggage of books, books and more books.

His arrival coincided with the passing of Acts of Parliamentary enclosure in Leicestershire.[1] These occurred between 1759 and 1840, with most Acts passed between 1760 and 1790. Loughborough enacted these measures quickly: the open fields around the small town were enclosed by 1760.

For landowners, farming in severalty[2] increased the income from the land they owned. Farmers and landowners generally preferred to transform arable land into permanent pastureland for grazing cattle. The population of towns – including Loughborough – had grown significantly since the Middle Ages, offering a ready retail market for food produced at commercial scale; whilst their need for housing drove up the price of land on the outskirts, marking the beginning of urban sprawl.

This was not just profitable for private agriculturalists and property developers: Loughborough’s two schools, the Grammar School and the charity school for poor girls, the Blue Coat School, benefited from enclosure too as their endowments increased.[3] The income of the Grammar School trustees rose from £740 at the end of the 18th century, to £1,300 in 1819 and £1,6000 in 1831; the income of the Blue Coat School was £22 in 1745, £30 18s. in 1786 and £80 13s. 1d. in 1837, according to Bernard Elliott’s The History of Loughborough College School (1971, page 27).

What about the people who did not own land and had farmed for their subsistence on open fields, used commons for grazing their animals, and waste land for forage and fuel? Luckily for these people in Loughborough, Charnwood Forest remained unenclosed waste land until the end of the 18th century. Even so, enclosures removed an age-old public reserve. Life now depended on selling one’s labour alone.

Inevitably employment was not constant enough to keep all in work and people fell on parish relief[4] in larger numbers. Nationwide poor rates were customarily fixed by local parish officers. In Loughborough this duty fell to the town estate, who were twelve elected inhabitants and one executive officer, known as the bridgemaster.

Dorothy Marshall notes in her ground-breaking study The English Poor in the Eighteenth Century (1926) that whilst poor rates had been steadily rising over that century, the period 1760-82 saw a sharp rise in poor rates nationwide, “owing to the gradual and increasing growth of distress, and thanks to bad harvests” (page 79). At Leicester, Marshall writes, a rate worth £735 19s. 4d. in 1776 rose to £926 14s. 3d. in 1782.

In Loughborough the town estate had been running a workhouse for people who could not support themselves from as early as 1748, but workhouses notoriously failed to be lucrative and functioned mostly to contain people. Containment in the parish and shaming by the parish had been tried and tested strategies across communities in 17th century Britain. The Settlement Acts of 1662 and 1697 stipulated that a stranger could be removed from the parish if they had not found work within forty days and were to be returned to the parish where they had last resided (taken from Hungerford Museum Caring for the Poor). This was done to protect communities from paying poor relief for outsiders.

In 1694 “Badging” was brought in, whereby a pauper could get weekly relief only if they publicly wore a mark that identified their status. Paupers had to wear a cloth or brass “P” for “pauper”, the former made of red or blue cloth and stitched to the top of their right sleeve. Indeed, their entire family including all children had to wear the “P”, a symbolic practice linked to branding criminals in earlier centuries, which also made paupers highly visible, thus also discouraging forbidden activities such as begging. Any parish officer who dispensed relief to a poor person not wearing a badge could be fined 20s.

According to Steve Hindle’s 2004 study Dependency, Shame and Belonging: Badging the Deserving Poor, c.1550-1750, there were no documented county-wide initiatives to badge the poor in the East Midlands, but there were parochial initiatives to implement this method of control. Sutton Bonington is recorded as having badged the poor in 1731. Whilst this measure was resisted, in the context of its time it was consistent with wider practice such as obliging charity recipients like Loughborough’s Blue Coat School pupils to wear blue. The colour-coded blue coats and slips identified the schoolgirls as poor girls, albeit deserving ones, and prevented their families from pawning or pledging charity clothes for credit, as Hindle observes referring to a similar community (page 17).

Did the new Rector James Bickham have any experience of poverty to enable him to deal with real-life hardship? From the books he collected we know he read Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe, two authors who argued in their pamphlets from a core conviction that the poor were responsible for their condition and should overcome it through work. Swift published on this explicitly in his 1737 pamphlet A Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars in All the Parishes of Dublin, which is a less satirical and more practical follow-up to the infamous Modest Proposal of 1729. Bickham’s copy of this text is in the LPL, part of a multivolume edition of Swift’s works.

Whatever Bickham’s social views were, having lived all his adult life in College in Cambridge, it seems likely that his understanding of inequalities would be abstract. One could guess that Bickham would have associated the word “badge” with honour, first and foremost. Why? Because book collectors in the 18th century took to plating their books with their families’ coats of arms. The new Rector was distinctly fond of this genteel fashion: all his books bear bookplates engraved with his coat of arms and name.

A bookplate has a practical side. It acts as a silent tracker for copies gone astray and a block to sneaky appropriation. However, there is more to it. Beyond marking ownership of a physical object, a bookplate links a person’s name and pedigree to endurance in print.

Next blog: What can we glean from the Loughborough Parish Library about its maker, the rector James Bickham?

© Article written by Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham


Bernard Elliott, The History of Loughborough College School (1971)

Alfred White, A history of Loughborough endowed schools (1969)

Dorothy Marshall, The English Poor in the Eighteenth Century (1926)

Hungerford Museum, Caring for the Poor

Steve Hindle, Dependency, Shame and Belonging: Badging the Deserving Poor, c.1550-1750 (2004)

Jonathan Swift, A Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars in All the Parishes of Dublin (1737) in Miscellanies (1745), Volume 9. Loughborough Parish Library, PR3722 .M5, barcode 1008382390


St John the Evangelist. Engraved plate from: Jeremy Taylor, The great exemplar of sanctity and holy life according to the Christian institution (1653). Plate facing page 387. Loughborough Parish Library, Oversize BV4831.T2, barcode 1008386338.
© Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham
Oversize volumes on shelf. Loughborough Parish Library.
© Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham
Works of Jonathan Swift on shelf. Loughborough Parish Library.
© Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham
Bookplate of James Bickham (1719-1785), curator of Loughborough Parish Library.
© Manuscripts and Special Collections, University of Nottingham

[1] This was the enclosing – or fencing off – of areas of common land which had previously been under the control of the lord of the manor, but which ordinary townsfolk had had the right to make use of for, for example, grazing livestock and growing food.

[2] Severalty is the individual right of ownership, not shared with any other person.

[3] An endowment is a financial gift bequeathed in a will – often to a hospital or educational organisation – which will provide a continued income to those receiving it. Both the Grammar School (for boys) and the Blue Coat School (for girls) were bequeathed the rental income from lands in and around Loughborough, and as those lands became more valuable over time, their rental income increased.

[4] An unemployment benefit given out by the parish.

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