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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 86

VII.—Abolition of the Casual Ward

page 16

VII.—Abolition of the Casual Ward.

For the first 200 years of its history—indeed, during the whole era of the middle ages—Poor Law legislation aimed almost exclusively at repression, not relief; and we must, to-day, not forget the necessity of undertaking the reformation of sturdy rogues and vagabonds.

Many otherwise sensible people have a most immoral belief that all paupers belong to this class. They forget that one-third of the paupers are children, one-tenth insane, and one-half infirm, aged, or disabled adults. Less than one-tenth are classed as able-bodied adults; and of these three-fourths are women, mostly deserted or widowed mothers, with families demanding all their strength. Only 3 per cent. are classed as usually adult able-bodied males; and even as to these the Local Government Board explains (p. 278 of C. 5813)that they include "those relieved (1) on account of sudden and urgent necessity; (2) on account of their own sickness, accident, or infirmity; (3) on account of the sickness, accident, or infirmity of some member of the family, or through a funeral; and (4) on account of want of work." The number of vagrants relieved is only about 6000; and the total number of "sturdy beggars" profiting by the Poor Law must be but a trifling proportion of the population. Nevertheless vagabonds exist in demoralising numbers, moving gaily from one "Queen's Mansion" to another, until their faces become perfectly well-known to the superintendent.

The existing casual wards appear, indeed, to be permanent foci of moral infection. Filled almost exclusively by habitual tramps, they serve at present merely to deprave their inmates The few innocent persons who drift into them from sheer lack of shelter are almost inevitably drawn into the eddy of the evil current, and become permanent casuals. The only reform that can be suggested is total refusal to recognise or provide for the "poor traveller," now become obsolete; the admission to a "Reception Ward" of any destitute person, and his searching individual examination there; the stern and rigorous commitment to a penal "labor colony" of every recognised habitual casual; and the prompt discharge, after humane succor and performance of a reasonable task of useful labor, of the merely destitute laborer, who should be in every possible way assisted to obtain employment. We might certainly take as much trouble to save human lives from the shipwreck of permanent pauperism as we do to prevent the loss of ships and cargoes on our coasts.

For the chronic cases of sturdy vagrancy, idle mendicity and incorrigible laziness, we must have recourse to organised pauper labor, strictly disciplined and severely supervised. These classes, like the criminals, are the "failures" of our civilisation; and whilst they must be treated with all just kindness, and offered opportunities earning their subsistence, they must nevertheless be sternly denied all relief until they are willing to repay it by useful labor. The present Poor Law system fails to deal with them; and all reformers demand further public action. Mr. Charles Booth urges* that we must "open a little the portals of the Poor Law, or its administra- page 17 tion, making within its courts a working guild under suitable discipline," and eliminate the idle loafers from society by making their existence in the ordinary community more and more impossible, whilst we, on the other hand, offer them constantly the alternative of the reforming "labor colony" to which all incorrigible vagrants and beggars could be committed by the magistrate for specified terms on the indictment of the police or Poor Law officer.

* "Life and Labor in East London," p. 168.