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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 81

XVII — The Unemployed

page 91


The Unemployed

Dear Mr.——,—You are, I know, concerned, as must indeed be every thinking man in the kingdom, with the problem of the unemployed. I do not want to trouble you with the obvious arguments against encouraging unemployment by lavish relief of various kinds, but I should like to draw your attention to some of the evidence in the Poor Law Report of 1834, which is very significant, and also very appropriate to the present time. Many people are saying to-day: "It was no doubt a great mistake to start Special Committees and provide special treatment for the unemployed. It is, however, too late now to go back. We cannot cut off the supplies from the unemployed at the very moment when trade is beginning to be slack, and when men are being thrown out of work. We must go on with the policy of giving help over and above that provided by the Poor Law." My contention is that this view is not necessary, and that we can, and ought to, reverse page 92 our policy in regard to the unemployed. I hold that the proper answer to the question, "What are we to do with the unemployed?" is "Stop manufacturing them,"—that is, "Stop paying them." The same situation arose in the "thirties," and then it was found that the only effective plan was to stop putting a premium on unemployment. Read the piece of evidence given below by a witness who relates his experiences in a reformed Vestry. Before the Poor Law was reformed as a whole, single parishes would occasionally determine to reform themselves, and to give poor relief on strict principles and only after severe tests. The greater part of England at that time was under a system which can best be described as recognising the right of all men and women to be unemployed, and when unemployed to be maintained, if they chose, by the parish. The result was that the country swarmed with unemployed, and, as the witness notes, it was very generally thought impossible to get back to healthier conditions because trade was so bad. Yet, as the witness said, as soon as a parish left off paying the unemployed, the unemployed ceased being out of work.

Mr. Baker (of Uley): "That it is not so difficult for them [persons unemployed and supported by the parish] to find work for themselves as it is generally believed to be, is proved from the shortness of the time that, with not above two or three exceptions, any able-bodied person has remained in the house; and by a list which has been page 93 made of more than 1000 persons who were on the parish books and who now can be proved to be otherwise maintained, chiefly by their own exertions. The list shows what they used to receive, and for whom they now work. All who received parish pay before the workhouse was open are accounted for, excepting about eight or ten. Some few have left the parish, but not many. About 500 are now on the books, and most of those on reduced pay. I did not advise the introduction of the plan till I had read much, and till I had removed many doubts by private correspondence with those who had witnessed its beneficial effects for several years. Among these doubts the most important was, 'How, in the present scarcity of work, can those employ or support themselves who are now receiving parish pay?' The answer was: 'You will be surprised to find how soon the impossibility will dwindle down to an improbability, the improbability to a distant hope, and that again to complete success.' I was also told that industry and frugality would increase, and that crime would become less; but I never was told, nor had I the most distant hope, that the success would have been so complete. When it began the poor were idle, insolent, and in a state bordering upon riot: they openly acknowledged that they would rather live on the parish pay in idleness than work for full labourer's wages, and when hired their behaviour was such that they could not be continued in work. Now all are glad to get work. I employed many of them in the winter of 1830, and in the spring I let them go; but I promised them work again in the next winter, for which they expressed more gratitude than I expected: but when the winter came very few claimed my promise. They were in work which they had found for themselves, and in this winter, up to this time [December 5, 1832], only one person has asked me for work. There is one man at Uley whose character is, and ever has been, exceedingly bad, and, his feet being inverted, he is lame. He was allowed parish pay till very lately; he applied for an increase of it; he page 94 asserted no one would employ him, and I believed him. At a Vestry meeting, however, his pay was entirely taken off; he instantly found work for himself, and has lived by his labour ever since."

Another witness, Mr. Russell (of Swallowfield), made the following statement:—

"The sum of this is that the labourers generally have the means of independent support within their reach, but that, except in a few instances of rare sobriety and providence, they will not of their own accord make the efforts necessary to command them. Of most of the men here described, I have said that they are good and diligent workmen. A want of ability and willingness to work, when work is given to them, is not among the faults of English labourers; and it cannot be expected that they will be at the trouble of finding work, if they can find support without it. They will not go in search of the meat of industry, if they can sit down and eat the bread of idleness. If you maintain them in doing nothing, and put the key of the beer-house into their hand, what right have you to complain that they are idle and dissolute?"

Mrs. Park (wife of Mungo Park, the African explorer) gave this striking testimony:—

"About two years ago the state of our workhouse [Gravesend] attracted my attention, from the condition in which I learned that it was during my inquiries respecting Mr. Park's patients, he being then the surgeon of the parish. There were then fifty females in the workhouse. Of these, twenty-seven were young, stout, active women, who were never employed in doing anything whatever. There were five of these young and able women who were accustomed to go to bed in the forenoon, solely to pass off the time."

Accordingly a committee of ladies was formed, page 95 who set about reforming the female side of the workhouse.

"We wished to have the whole clothed in one way with gowns of blue linsey-woolsey, check aprons, dark handkerchiefs, and close white caps. After violent opposition from the mistress of the house and the females themselves, this was acceded to. Hitherto they had purchased the most gaudy prints for the females, and ready-made slop-shirts for the men in the house, whilst the young women were lying in bed idle. One of the paupers, a girl of eighteen years of age, who refused to work, was dressed in a dashing print dress of red and green, with gigot sleeves, a silk band, a large golden or gilt buckle, long gilt earrings, and a lace cap, turned up in front with bright ribbons, in the fashion of the day, and a high comb under the cap, and abundance of curls. A general order was given that the hair of the females should be braided and put under their caps, and no curls or curlpapers seen. . . . One effect of this partial discipline in the house was that in almost two months about one-half of the workers left. Some of them called themselves widows; others said they did not come in to work; they merely came in until they could accommodate themselves, until they could get themselves another situation; but they would not remain to work, indeed, that they would not; they would take a room and keep themselves when they were out of place, sooner than put on a dress, and be made to work! One refractory person said: 'The poor were not going to be oppressed by work.'"

Comment on such evidence is needless. I desire, however, to note one point of special importance. Socialists will tell you that the reform of the Poor Law only succeeded because it coincided with the building of the railways, and page 96 therefore with a sudden and immense demand for unskilled labour. It was possible then, they argue, though it would not be now, to disband the legions of the unemployed because of the demand for navvies. But note that the examples I have cited deal with the period before the epoch of widespread railway construction. That did not set in till at least six years later. Before I leave the Report I will quote the following testimony as to the effect of lavish relief:—

"Do you find any effect produced by men obtaining parochial relief readily when they are out of work, or have anything the matter with them?"—"I have always seen that men who have had parish relief have been very careless of work and of their money ever afterwards. It has also acted very mischievously on the benefit societies, as these men would never contribute to them."

Yours very sincerely,

J. St. L. S.