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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 70

Labour and Population

Labour and Population.

The agitation in some quarters to rapidly increase the population from outside is, I think, to be deprecated, as hastening a state of things from which we had been glad to escape in old countries. The natural increase would be sufficient without forced immigration, although shipping companies and their agents might think differently. Surely the people already here would rather have the land and the work to divide among themselves and their children. More people introduced to cheapen labour for the capitalists is not what is wanted, but the use of money at low rates for those already here, to make the land productive, and so make the burden of taxation easier.

Later on I will quote Belgium to show what can be done by small farmers in breeding valuable stock; but in case I should be misunderstood to be holding up Belgium as an example to follow, I will give some facts about the country. I lived chiefly in Belgium for a number of years, seven or eight, partly before the days of railroads—not as a tourist, but speaking the language as my own, mixing with the people, and seeing the home life of the peasantry and the working classes. The effect of a crowded population on very small farms was very marked. The agricultural labourer's day was 12 hours, the pay one franc per day (about 9½d), out of which he found himself. Much of the work was with the spade. The manufacturing operative's pay was low in proportion, and the hours about the same. The women eked out a living by making hand-made lace in their spare time. Now, although there were no signs of poverty or dirt in the country or towns, still there were many thousands of agricultural and other labourers every winter on what we would call relief works on still worse pay. Although these people did not starve or live on directly unwholesome food, and being born to the life, they were happy and contented enough; still neither the fare—which included frogs (sold in the towns as we sell fish), snails, and a large portion of sour skim-milk made into soft cheese—nor the pay would suit an Englishman, much less a Colonial. It was curious to see how every bit of ground, or refuse, or animal was utilised. In many cases light carts drawn by dogs took meat, vegetables, fish, &c., to market, as well as the driver. Dogs did some of the churning, working in an enclosed wheel battened inside to give foothold. To give some of the methods of cultivation page 23 would be instructive if there was time. A large part of the population was engaged in manufacturing for export, and of course consumers of the agricultural produce. Besides this, the producers had only about twenty miles of channel to cross to put the surplus of this produce in the London market, including garden produce, poultry, &c. There were large manufactories of military and other small arms for export and home use, England, and some of the States of the American Continent, being large customers for military small arms and ammunition. Sometimes—Liege-made guns are sold in New Zealand now—a good deal of wool was imported and manufactured. I have seen "River Plate" wool in Antwerp quite fifty years ago, full of burrs too, being picked out in the military prisons. A large quantity of linen was made. English manufacturers, finding that labour was much cheaper, established manufactories there, and made goods for the English market chiefly. Among these "Irish linen" was made—that is, linen that under the microscope is equal to Irish linen—and as Irish linen was noted in England for its quality, this was sold in England as Irish, and so undersold the Irish-made. There was an army of about 80,000 men out of a total population of about 6,500,000—of course, so many withdrawn from industrial pursuits and competition for employment, and the army was made up of young men as the term of service was short.

No doubt a good many know all this, but probably a great many do not, so on that account I have related these facts in the endeavour to show that if—in spite of manufactures and a market at hand, London alone, with about 5,656,000 people being equal, or more than equal to the population of Belgium—things are so with the population of Belgium, it would be a hazardous policy to force on population here beyond the natural increase in a country that must entirely depend on the export of agricultural produce for many years. There are already over 400,000 above the age of fifteen in the Colony, two-thirds of the whole population. At this rate there will not be much spare room in the country in twenty years. In countries chiefly depending on agriculture thick population risks actual famine. Take Ireland, Russia, India, China, as examples. In some of the latter countries the people have died in millions from want of food. There are already over 40,000 separate holdings of one acre and upwards, nearly all freehold, besides town lands. This is already about one holding to sixteen of the total population, and as about half of the total population live in the large towns and villages it is about one holding to eight of the page 24 country population. It will be seen from this that for every producer and dweller in the country there is about one town dweller, who, as the towns produce nothing for export, gets a living in some way by ministering to the wants of the country dweller and producer, and that to cripple him would be like the fable where the other members of the body did away with the belly. I would here again remind the man working for wages that although there are over 40,000 separate holdings there are nearly 40,000 mortgages, and that if he and the mortgagors and others combine for legislation to get the average rate of interest reduced to five per cent., even if no more labour is employed by the mortgagors, but the proceeds of the reduction divided equally between the mortgagors and the men working for wages by increased wages, the men working for wages would have about £500,000 a year more to divide among them, which per head would be a good round sum, and the mortgagors who now employ them would be able to pay this more easily than they do the rate of wages now. They would have also done the mortgagors a substantial service, and saved many of them from ruin, and this without inflicting injustice or hardship or anyone, Sound banks and lending companies could still pay 10 per cent, or better dividends, private lenders could get one or two per cent, more than in England, and the whole would be on a safer footing. The total area of the colony is about 64,000,000 acres, the total population, including Maories, about 700,000, therefore there is now about 90 acres to each of the total population. As about one-third of the whole area is mountain ranges and pumice desert, there is now only about sixty acres of available land for each of the population—a fair plea in a country depending on agricultural produce for its exports that the natural increase of population would be sufficient. But surely a great proportion of the people in the towns should be producing in the country and acquiring property instead of wasting their time and opportunities in the large towns.