Tim Hitchcock (University of Hertfordshire)
Abstract: Through the digitisation of some 40 million words of manuscript sources about the lives of plebeian Londoners between 1690 and 1800 and the creation of an integrated search facility to trace individuals through these and other electronic sources, the ESRC-funded Plebeian Lives project is creating biographies of hundreds of otherwise obscure individuals. These life stories document the experiences of poor Londoners as they navigated their way through the institutions which provided poor relief, medical care and justice in the metropolis. These stories demonstrate, this paper will argue, that through their use of these institutions, often playing them off against each other, plebeian Londoners shaped the development of social policy. Individual biographies will be combined with a synthetic and theoretical overview to argue that the creation of an individual, rather than institutional, centered approach to social history has the potential to transform our understanding, not only of the lives of the poor, but also the development of the modern state.