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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

XIII — The Old Poor Law (continued)

page 70


The Old Poor Law (continued)

Dear Mr.——,—Another method of estimating the demoralisation caused by the absolute right to relief conferred by the old Poor Law is to be found in noting the difference between the independent labourers, as they were called, and the labourers who had a right to parish relief. As you perhaps know, a man could only claim relief from his own parish. In order to make good that claim he had to show that he possessed what was called a settlement in the parish. A certain number of men, from various causes, such as having gone to other parts of England, lost their settlement, and so their claim upon any particular parish. They had therefore to rely upon their own efforts. The difference between such men and those who possessed the indefeasible right to relief was enormous. Several witnesses before the Poor Law Commission of 1834 declared that they could tell those who were called independent labourers by the mere look on their faces, by the appearance of page 71 their families, or even by their houses—a striking illustration of Gray's famous line—

And read their history in a nation's eyes.

Here is a striking piece of evidence comparing the independent labourers and the able-bodied paupers:—

" Have you ever compared the condition of the ablebodied pauper with the condition of the independent labourer?"—"Yes. I have lately inquired into various cases of the labouring poor who receive parish relief; and, being perfectly acquainted with the cases of paupers generally, the contrast struck me forcibly. In the pauper's habitation you will find a strange show of misery and wretchedness; and those little articles of furniture which might by the least exertion imaginable wear an appearance of comfort are turned, as it were intentionally, the ugliest side outward. The children are dirty, and appear to be under no control. The clothes of both parents and children, in nine cases out of ten, are ragged, but evidently are so for the lack of the least attempt to make them otherwise; for I have very rarely found the clothes of a pauper with a patch put or a seam made upon them since new. Their mode of living, in all cases that I have known (except and always making the distinction between the determined pauper and the infirm and deserving poor, which cases are but comparatively few), is most improvident. It is difficult to get to a knowledge of particulars in their cases; but whatever provisions I have found, on visiting their habitations, have been of the best quality; and my inquiries among tradesmen, as butchers, chandlers, shopkeepers, etc., have all been answered with: 'They will not have anything but the best.'

"In the habitation of the labouring man who receives no parish relief you will find (I have done so) even in the page 72 poorest an appearance of comfort; the articles of furniture, few and humble though they may be, have their best side seen, are arranged in something like order, and so as to produce the best appearance of which they are capable. The children appear under parental control; are sent to school (if of that age); their clothes you will find patched and taken care of so as to make them wear as long a time as possible. There is a sense of moral feeling and moral dignity easily discerned. They purchase such food, and at such seasons, and in such quantities, as the most economical would approve of."

Another writer, Mr Isaac Willis, collector of the Poor-rates in the parish of St. Mary, Stratfordle-Bow, London, spoke to the same effect:—

"Are the two classes externally distinguishable in their persons, houses, or behaviour?"—"Yes, they are. I can easily distinguish them, and I think they might be distinguished by any one who paid attention to them. The independent labourer is comparatively clean in his person, his wife and children are clean, and the children go to school; the house is in better order and more cleanly. Those who depend on parish relief or on benefactions, on the contrary, are dirty in their persons and slothful in their habits; the children are allowed to go about the streets in a vagrant condition. The industrious labourers get their children out to service early. The pauper and charity-fed people do not care what becomes of their children. The man who earns his penny is always a better man in every way than the man who begs it."

Another London witness, Mr. Samuel Miller, assistant-overseer of St. Sepulchre's, London, testified as follows:—

"In the course of my visits to the residences of the page 73 labouring people in our own and other parishes 1 have seen the apartments of those who remained independent, though they had no apparent means of getting more than those who were receiving relief from the parish, or so much as outdoor paupers. The difference in their appearance is most striking; I now almost immediately, on the sight of a room, can tell whether it is the room of a pauper or of an independent labourer. I have frequently said to the wife of an independent labourer, 'I can see by the neatness and cleanness of your place that you receive no relief from any parish.' 'No,' they usually say, 'and I hope we never shall.' This is applicable not only to the paupers in the Metropolis, but it may be stated,' from all I have seen elsewhere, and heard, that it is equally applicable to other places. The quantity of relief given to the paupers makes no difference with them as to cleanliness or comfort; in many instances very much the contrary. More money only produces more drunkenness. We have had frequent instances of persons being deprived of parochial relief from misconduct or otherwise, or, as the officers call it, 'choked off the parish,' during twelve months or more, and at the end of that time we have found them in a better condition than when they were receiving weekly relief."

I cannot, unfortunately, find space to give all the illustrations of the terrible demoralisation brought about by the old Poor Law which the Report contains. Before I leave the subject, however, I should like to quote the introductory paragraph which deals with the effects of the old Poor Law system on those not actually relieved

We have seen that one of the objects attempted by the present [1834] administration of the Poor Laws is to repeal pro tanto that law of nature by which the effects of page 74 each man's improvidence or misconduct are borne by himself and his family. The effect of that attempt has been to repeal pro tanto the law by which each man and his family enjoy the benefit of his own prudence and virtue. In abolishing punishment we equally abolish reward. Under the operation of the scale system—the system which directs the overseers to regulate the incomes of the labourers according to their families—idleness, improvidence, or extravagance occasions no loss, and consequently diligence and economy can afford no gain. But to say merely that these virtues afford no gain is an inadequate expression; they are often the causes of absolute loss. We have seen that in many places the income derived from the parish for easy or nominal work, or, as it is most significantly termed, "in lieu of labour," actually exceeds that of the independent labourer; and even in those cases in which the relief-money only equals, or nearly approaches, the average rate of wages it is often better worth having, as the pauper requires less expensive diet and clothing than the hard-working man. In such places a man who does not possess either some property or an amount of skill which will ensure to him more than the average rate of wages is, of course, a loser by preserving his independence. Even if he have some property, he is a loser, unless the aggregate of the income which it affords and of his wages equals what he would receive as a pauper.

It appears, accordingly, that when a parish has become pauperised the labourers are not only prodigal of their earnings, not only avoid accumulation, but even dispose of, and waste in debauchery, as soon as their families entitle them to allowance, any small properties which may have devolved on them, or which they may have saved in happier times. Self-respect, however, is not yet so utterly destroyed among the English peasantry as to make this universal. Men are still to be found who would rather derive a smaller income from their own funds and their page 75 own exertions than beg a larger one from the parish. And in those cases in which the labourer's property is so considerable as to produce, when joined to his wages, an income exceeding parish pay, or the aggregate of wages and allowance, it is obviously his interest to remain independent.

Will it be believed that such is not merely the cruelty, but the folly of the ratepayers in many places that they prohibit this conduct—that they conspire to deny the man who, in defiance of the examples of all around him, has dared to save, and attempts to keep his savings, the permission to work for his bread? Such a statement appears so monstrous that we will substantiate it by some extracts from our evidence.

I feel sure that you will realise the importance of the extracts I have given from the Report of 1834, and I hope that you and all others who are studying the subject of Socialism will read that Report in detail. It is a book of no very great dimensions, and can be bought for the price of 1s. 8d., either from the Government printers, Messrs. Wyman and Sons, or through any bookseller.—Yours very sincerely,

J. St. L. S.