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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

XII — The Old Poor Law

page 65


The Old Poor Law

Dear Mr.——,—I want to draw your attention to a fact too often forgotten. It is that we have tried, and tried very thoroughly, a system of State Socialism in England, and that it was a complete and disastrous failure. Under the old Poor Law, or let us say the latest developments of the old Poor Law, which existed roughly between the years 1800 and 1834, we had experience of an almost complete Socialistic system. The inhabitants of a parish till 1834 had an absolute claim upon the community for their support. Every man and woman in a parish could sing the pauper's song:

Then drive away sorrow and banish all care,
For the State it is bound to maintain us.

There was State endowment for the old, State endowment for the unemployed, and State endowment for motherhood. The more children a woman had, whether born in wedlock or not, the more she received at the hands of the State. The begetting of the children was, as it were, the only page 66 function left to the father. Unless the father was particularly anxious to sacrifice himself to his offspring, his duties were performed by the community, with the result that there was a frightful increase in illegitimate births. Nothing comes out more strongly in that wonderful book, the Report of the Poor Law Commission of 1834, than the destruction of family life and family ties which was accomplished by the indiscriminate Poor Law relief of those days. I had best, however, quote the actual words of a notable passage in the Report of the Commissioners which deals with the appalling effect on family life and family feeling caused by indiscriminate poor relief:—

The worst results [of the old Poor Law system of indiscriminate outdoor relief], however, are still to be mentioned. In all ranks of society the great sources of happiness and virtue are the domestic affections, and this is particularly the case among those who have so few resources as the labouring classes. Now, pauperism seems to be an engine for the purpose of disconnecting each member of a family from all the others; of reducing all to the state of domesticated animals, fed, lodged, and provided for by the parish, without mutual dependence or mutual interest.

"The effect of allowance," says Mr. Stuart, "is to weaken, if not to destroy, all the ties of affection between parent and child. Whenever a lad comes to earn wages, or to receive parish relief on his own account (and this, we must recollect, is at the age of fourteen), although he may continue to lodge with his parents, he does not throw his money into a common purse and board with them, but buys his own loaf and piece of bacon, which page 67 he devours alone. The most disgraceful quarrels arise from mutual accusations of theft; and as the child knows that he has been nurtured at the expense of the parish, he has no filial attachment to his parents. The circumstances of the pauper stand in an inverted relation to those of every other rank in society. Instead of a family being a source of care, anxiety, and expense, for which he hopes to be rewarded by the filial return of assistance and support when they grow up, there is no period in his life in which he tastes less of solicitude, or in which he has the means of obtaining all the necessaries of life in greater abundance; but as he is always sure of maintenance, it is in general the practice to enjoy life when he can, and no thought is taken for the morrow. Those parents who are thoroughly degraded and demoralised by the effects of 'allowance' not only take no means to train up their children to habits of industry, but do their utmost to prevent their obtaining employment, lest it should come to the knowledge of the parish officers, and be laid hold of for the purpose of taking away the allowance."

Mr. Majendie states that at Thaxted mothers and children will not nurse each other in sickness unless they are paid for it. Mr. Power mentions the following circumstance as having occurred at Over, Cambridgeshire, a few days before his visit:

"A widow with two children had been in the receipt of 3s. a week from the parish. She was enabled by this allowance and her own earnings to live very comfortably. She married a butcher. The allowance was continued. But the butcher and his bride came to the overseer and said, 'They were not going to keep those children for 3s. a week, and that if a further allowance was not made they should turn them out of doors and throw them on the parish altogether.' The overseer resisted. The butcher appealed to the bench, who recommended him to make the best arrangement he could, as the parish was obliged to support the children."

page 68

"Those whose minds," say Messrs. Wrottesley and Cameron, "have been moulded by the operation of the Poor Laws appear not to have the slightest scruple in asking to be paid for the performance of those domestic duties which the most brutal savages are in general willing to render gratuitously to their own kindred. 'Why should I tend my sick and aged parents, when the parish is bound to do it? Or if I do perform the service, why should I excuse the parish, which is bound to pay for it?'"

* * * * * *

"At the time of my journey," says Mr. Cowell, "the acquaintance I had with the practical operation of the Poor Laws led me to suppose that the pressure of the sum annually raised upon the ratepayers, and its progressive increase, constituted the main inconvenience of the Poor Law system. The experience of a very few weeks served to convince me that this evil, however greats sinks into insignificance when compared with the dreadful effects which the system produces on the morals and happiness of the lower orders. It is as difficult to convey to the mind of the reader a true and faithful impression of the intensity and malignancy of the evil in this point of view, as it is by any description, however vivid, to give an adequate idea of the horrors of a shipwreck or a pestilence. A person must converse with paupers, must enter workhouses, and examine the inmates, must attend at the parish pay-table, before he can form a just conception of the moral debasement which is the offspring of the present system; he must hear the pauper threaten to abandon his wife and family unless more money is allowed him—threaten to abandon an aged bedridden mother, to turn her out of his house and lay her down at the overseers door, unless he is paid for giving her shelter; he must hear parents threatening to follow the same course with regard to their sick children; he must see mothers coming to receive the reward of their daughters' ignominy, and witness women in cottages quietly pointing out, without even page 69 the question being asked, which are their children by their husband and which by other men previous to marriage; and when he finds that he can scarcely step into a town or parish in any county without meeting with some instance or other of this character he will no longer consider the pecuniary pressure on the ratepayer as the first in the class of evils which the Poor Laws have entailed upon the community."

I mean in another letter to give you some further proof from the Report of 1834 of the terrible evils caused by the Socialism of the old Poor Law.—Yours very sincerely,

J. St. L. S.